This week, hookers from both of these towns have been exchanging pleasantries. Before you get carried away with that sentence, Leicester Tigers head coach Richard Cockerill and Clermont player Benjamin Kayser have been drawing parallels between the two clubs; both are rugby strongholds in their respective countries in regions that, with all due respect, do not offer a huge amount else.
What they lack outside of rugby, however, they more than make up for in passion for the game. With two of the most knowledgable and passionate sets of fans around, both the Tigers and Clermont have huge amounts of pedigree. And if the hosts have a habit of choking towards the end of the season, they can take comfort in the stat that has been bandied about this week as though it’s going out of fashion (which is exactly what the Tigers will be hoping to achieve on Saturday) – they have won their last 74 games at the imposing Stade Marcel Michelin.
The Stade Marcel Michelin is the most difficult place to travel to in European rugby – the stat above confirms that much. That they have had a typically French season and lost the majority of their away games, then, is entirely irrelevant. This is their fortress, and this is where they play their best rugby. Their winning margin here this season is 21 points. Their fans arrive expecting a rout, not hoping for one.
They are not the galacticos of Toulon or Racing Métro, but they still have a side infused with huge quality. Out wide, Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu are probably the most dangerous wing partnership in the competition, if not the world, while in the centre we find Wesley Fofana, a man who even manages to look world class in a bumbling French side.
The half backs can blow a bit hot and cold, but Morgan Parra can dictate matters the way only a diminutive French scrum-half can and if Brock James doesn’t have to worry about place kicking, he is a world class playmaker.
Up front Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines provide more than a little grunt, not to mention niggle, while Ben Kayser and Thomas Domingo in the front row will set a solid set piece platform for Les Jaunards. In the back row, Alexandre Lapandry and Julien Bonnaire should return to provide experience and no little class.
It is usually around this time of year that the Tigers start to play some rugby. Last year they came close to winning in Toulon, but with an even bigger ask ahead of them at the weekend they will have to delve even deeper.
Young Owen Williams is set to get the nod at fly-half, and rightly so, as he has had a huge role in the Tigers’ upturn in fortunes since coming into the team for France-bound Toby Flood. His half-back partner Ben Youngs, after enduring a stodgy season, has started to hit his straps too – he will be hoping to showcase his explosive pace in running at any fragmented Clermont defence.
The other man who has played a huge role in their resurgence is lock and newly-appointed captain Ed Slater – a man mountain whose abrasive carrying style will be needed against the likes of Hines and Cudmore. His work in the tight, along with the unheralded but impressive Salvi/Gibson partnership, will also be key.
Manu Tuilagi and Niki Goneva provide more than enough attacking threat to keep Clermont defenders up at night, and their duel with the Sivivatu/Nalaga partnership means there is the potential for fireworks if they get enough ball.
Logovi’i Mulipola has been performing admirably on the tighthead, but his prowess really falls in the loose and his examination by Thomas Domingo this weekend will be the sternest he has had yet on his adopted side of the scrum.
Head to head: Wesley Fofana vs Anthony Allen
So it falls to Anthony Allen to keep Wesley Fofana quiet – the most unenviable of tasks, but if there’s anyone that can do it, it’s Allen. The Leicester centre is the lynchpin in their midfield, and with Manu Tuilagi outside him, who is prone to the odd positional error, Allen will have to be right on his game in order not to let Fofana break free in space.
The Frenchman possesses power and pace in abundance and is one of the deadliest attacking weapons in the world, but his opposite man this weekend has turned himself into a first rate defensive player. It will be fascinating to see who ends up on top.
As Richard Cockerill said, Clermont’s run must come to an end at some point, so why not this weekend? Well, because it is far more likely to happen in a throwaway Top 14 fixture that doesn’t matter than one of the most important games in Clermont’s season. The home side are insatiable at the Marcel Michelin, and despite the undeniable fact that the Tigers are beginning their late season surge, it is very, very difficult to see anything other than a win for Les Jaunards. Clermont by 7.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images