By Tadhg Peavoy
Leinster v Clermont Auvergne has become one of the classic encounters of Heineken Cup rugby; an El Clasico clash which so far has never failed to deliver an absolute belter of a tie.
Following last week’s closely fought 15-12 victory for Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin, this Saturday’s battle royale at Aviva Stadium promises to be no less spectacular.
The stakes are supremely high with a second-place qualifying position from the pool not guaranteed, with several other pools also bosting second-placed teams with high total points.
This leads to the fact that Leinster will feel they need to win Pool 5. At present they lie second with nine points to Clermont’s 14, meaning a winning bonus point, while denying Clermont a losing bonus point, is necessary to go level at the top.
Joe Schmidt’s Leinster show four changes to the side that started in last week’s defeat in Clermont. Heinke Van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss, Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan come in for Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Kevin McLaughlin and Isaac Boss.
Fit again Van der Merwe should prove a stabilising force in both scrum and ruck, while Strauss and Jennings are likely to add mobility and a creativity that Leinster will need to secure the tries to gain a bonus point in Dublin 4.
Strauss’s line-out throw will be under scrutiny in this clash, and accurate dart throwing will be crucial for the Irish province in ensuring they provide clean go forward ball against a very strong Clermont line-out.
Reddan’s inclusion at scrumhalf is a nod from Schmidt that he wants the Ireland international to provide the clean passing game from halfback that his colleague Boss on occasion fails to muster.
Leinster need to play the champagne rugby that their fans have been so accustomed to over the last two years in order to rip apart this superb Clermont side, and judging by last week Ian Madigan, Andrew Goodman and Jonathan Sexton could be the key trio in doing so.
With Andew Conway and Dave Kearney on the bench, there are also some intriguing options available should Leinster find it hard going in the final third.
But Clermont have plenty of fearsome attack runners of their own; Wesley Fofana, Aurélien Rougerie and Lee Byrne are a trio that Leinster must watch like hawks.
The speed, invention and power of those three wreaks havoc against most defences, and they will offer a stern test to Leinster this weekend. No doubt they - and their coaches - have devised specific moves and ideas on how to break down Leinster, which will differ from last week.
Indeed, watching how Clermont constantly reinvent nuances in their game to tackle Leinster is a high point of clashes between the two teams.
Leinster played large parts of last week’s encounter tight and narrow, and while this will work well early on in Dublin to get into the Clermont pack, a wider, more constructed game plan will be necessary to get the most from their talented back line and broken-play runners.
With a pack that contains players such as Julien Bonnaire, Nathan Hines and Davit Zirakashvili, getting into an arm wrestle with Clermont comes with a health warning. Schmidt’s team will know this and attempt to outwit Clermont.
They have shown in the past that they can, and could very well do so again this time out. However, a bonus point may prove just beyond them.
Prediction: Leinster 30-17 Clermont Auvergne
Leinster v Clermont Auvergne, Heineken Cup, at Aviva Stadium, Saturday 15 December, kick-off 15:40.
Leinster: 15 Ian Madigan 14 Fergus McFadden 13 Gordon D'Arcy 12 Andrew Goodman 11 Isa Nacewa 10 Jonathan Sexton 9 Eoin Reddan 8 Jamie Heaslip 7 Shane Jennings 6 Sean O'Brien 5 Damien Browne 4 Leo Cullen (captain) 3 Mike Ross 2 Richardt Strauss 1 Heinke Van Der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 Cian Healy 18 Michael Bent 19 Devin Toner 20 Kevin McLaughlin 21 Issac Boss 22 Andrew Conway 23 David Kearney.
Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu 13 Aurélien Rougerie (captain) 12 Wesley Fofana 11 Naipolioni Nalaga 10 Brock James/David Skrela 9 Morgan Parra 8 Damien Chouly 7 Julien Bardy 6 Julien Bonnaire 5 Nathan Hines 4 Jamie Cudmore 3 Davit Zirakashvili 2 Benjamin Kayser 1 Raphael Chaume.
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Loïc Jacquet, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludo Radosavljevic, 22 David Skrela/Benson Stanley, 23 Regan King.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
There will be full live coverage of Saracens v Munster on Sunday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday 16 December from 2pm.