HEC Semi-Final Preview: Clermont v Leinster

It’s semi-final weekend and these are nervous times in Cordite Towers.  In order to remove the overrunning emotion from the occasion, bible-thumping Ulsterman Egg Chaser is going to brush the chip off his shoulder and preview Clermont v Leinster, while cappuccino-slurping D4TRESS-regular Palla Ovale will look at the Ulster v Edinburgh Big Match Special.

Clermont v Leinster

History: Lots of recent history. In the 2010 quarter-final, Leinster triumphed 29-28 in a memorable game in which Brock James missed 5 kicks and 2 drops at goal – Clermont did everything but win, and their fans would go down as one of the best (and the most naked) sets of away fans to visit D4.

In the following season’s group stages, they beat each other at home – a heroic away performance by Leinster set the tone for a dominant tournament, and their denying of a losing bonus point to Clermont put them in the driving position in the pool. Back in the day (2003), Leinster did the double over Montferrand.

Form: Both teams are on the top of their game, and, with due respect to Uster and Embra, would be likely finalists if they avoided each other at this stage.

At domestic level, Clermont are joint top of the Top 14 with Toulouse, miles clear of Toulon in third. They have the best defensive record in France, and have won every game at home – in fact they are unbeaten in 42 games at home. In Europe, they came through top of a tough pool which looks even tougher in retrospect. Leicester, who have 6 bonus point victories on the trot in England, could only finish 3rd; and fellow semi-finalists Ulster were runners-up. In the quarter-final, Saracens were ground into the dirt in an intimidating statement – putting to bed suspicions from some of the underpants brigade (©Farrelly Productions) that they lacked the mental.

Leinster have been opening cans of whoop-ass all over the Pro12 this season, despite resting most of their big players for the tournament. They have already secured top seeding for the playoffs and the home advantage throughout that that entails, and are hot favourites to take it home. This year’s HEC campaign has been a bit of a stroll, especially in comparison to last year, winning all 3 home games by half time and grinding out 2 wins and a draw away without having to hit top gear. In the quarter-final, a divided Cardiff side were eviscerated. Leinster are undefeated in their last 13 HEC games, dating back to last year’s loss in … Clermont.

Gameplan: Joe Schmidt would, uinder normal circumstances, start with Leinster ‘away’ team for a game like this, with McLaughlin, O’Brien and Boss included from the start, and Jennings and Reddan coming in to inject pace on the hour mark. However, its hard to see how rope-a-dope will work – Clermont are no Bath or Glasgow – so Leinster’s best chance probably comes from getting some pace into the game – Reddan is likely to start on Sunday.

The away template tends to consist of territory and playing it tight, but, again, giving Clermont the ball is not a strategy thats likely to succeed. Leinster will look to put pace on the ball, playing to their strengths. Expect the Leinster flankers to try and put some heat on Morgan Parra – if the matinee idol genius is ratty, Clermont tend not to be at their best. With some-guy-called-Brian (© G. Thornley) back and Schmidt’s knowledge of Clermont’s players, expect rock solid defence. Shane Jennings and Heinke van der Merwe will be the first substitutes on to the pitch, and Leinster will look to take advantage of any gaps opening up.

Clermont have a plan of terrible beauty and it’s oh so simple. Firstly, deny Leinster clean possession at scrum and ruck time with their gargantuan pack. They will want to see Reddan taking the ball going backwards and the Leinster fowards having to put in a huge amount of work to protect ball. Secondly, when they do have the ball, expect the creative inside backs to shift ball quickly to onrushing huge powerful backs (Rougerie, Sivivatu, Malzieu) and force Leinster to make big tackles. It’s a fearsome side and one that just pounds mercilessly until they get their reward. Cotter will shift in some powerful beasts after 50 minutes – Vincent Debaty was sensational against Ulster, turning the tide when it looked like Clermont were in a spot of bother, and the bench will be of top quality.  Look out for our new favourite bright young thing, Jean-Marcel Buttin.

Prediction: This one will be epic. Quinny said in the IT today that semi-finals can be grinding affairs, but we think that more applies to finals – there have been some memorable games at this stage: Munster-Leinster (twice), Leinster-Toulouse, Munster-Wasps, Leicester-Cardiff. However, this one is not going to be a try-fest, both teams will be content to have the last man standing.

When facing a baying crowd of Auvergnats (yes, we know its in Bordeaux, but don’t expect it to be anything but intimidating), the first 20 minutes are crucial – Leinster came flying out of the traps last year with an early Shaggy try, and Ulster bent but did not break in January. If you get past that, you have a chance. A small chance.

Clermont’s stated mission is to win this year’s Heineken Cup – this season, they have come through four games tougher than Leinster have faced (Ulster H & A, Leicester A, Saracens A) due to the champions’ somewhat powder-puff draw. Leinster had their quarter-final wrapped up inside half an hour, and proceeded to practice defence for most of the second half.  It’s not the greatest habit to get into.  If Leinster are not immediately at the intensity of the second half of last years semi-final, they won’t win, despite more experience at this heady level. Away to a gnarled set of huge and driven opponents, and with a creaking lineout, we have Leinster slightly odds-against.

They’ll ask plenty of questions of Clermont, and when the going gets tough they’ll hang in through pure muscle memory but they might come up just short – we’re going for Clermont by less than a score.

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9 Comments

  1. Agree with your prediction. As you say, Leinster haven’t faced anywhere near as tough a match as those four Clermont have come through. Not saying they haven’t been brilliant at times, but I don’t think anyone they’ve played yet in HC, or even PRO12, has genuinely believed they were good enough to beat Leinster. Clermont clearly are. Obviously hope Leinster do it. So excited for the game!

  2. Rhubarbsticks

     /  April 26, 2012

    A fair point on Leinster’s easier draw but they are an experienced bunch and will know exactly what is ahead of them. They will be ready. A 50/50 game I reckon.

  3. Xyz

     /  April 26, 2012

    Sadly agree with your call on the result but can’t make up my mind about the starting XV – home or away teams…. When oh when does the squad go up?

  4. It’s as close to a 50-50 as you can get alright. Suffice to say we won’t be betting our bottom dollar on the outcome. Teams out tomorrow at noon Xyz…

  5. *drools uncontrolably*

  6. P White

     /  April 27, 2012

    I don’t think I have ever seen a more 50/50 game than this on paper. I think you have hit the nail on the head with the preview but omitted one massively important thing: the referee. Wayne Barnes will play a major role in this game and it is difficult to see the 50/50’s landing on the Leinster side in France.

  7. anoonamous

     /  April 27, 2012

    I hope he starts with Jenno rather than Locky. Jenno is better at “getting at” the opposition halves and will also challenge Hinesy for the “Pikie of the Match” award…

  8. Team’s out in an hour. I think given Leinster’s recent lineout troubles and the looming presence of Julien Bonnaire, Locky is the call for this one. He appears to be cemented as first choice these days, with Jenno brought on from 55 onwards.

  9. anoonamous

     /  April 27, 2012

    He’s gone with Jenno & Boss. He’s targeting Parra.

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