Date: 29th April 2012
Venue: Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Kick-off: 15:00 (BST)
What a season so far for Clermont. Tied with Toulouse in 2nd in the Top 14, 17 points clear of 3rd placed Toulon, after years of unfulfilled potential in the Heineken Cup it feels as though Les Jaunards are on the verge of something special. The dominance in their win against Saracens in the quarter-final surprised many, the pack dictating the game whilst Brock James was born again in kicking Clermont through to their first semi-final. With so many talented backs on their books, they truly are an exciting prospect.
The champions have been irrepressible in this year’s tournament, playing with width and ambition more reminiscent of a Super Rugby side than a European outfit. Memorable victories over Bath and Cardiff so far have automatically marked them out as favourites, but travelling to Bordeaux to take on Clermont will be their hardest test so far. The last time Leinster contested a Heineken semi-final in France, against Toulouse in 2010, it ended in defeat.
What to Expect:
With 49 tries between them so far in this year’s tournament, both of those sides know how to put their backs into space. This has mainly been down to the fact that their packs haven’t been troubled by opposition forwards so far, creating quick ball, tired legs and quite simply, dominant results. However, this weekend will see the two juggernauts face off in Bordeaux, with picking a winner far from simple.
The creakiness of Ireland’s scrum when Cian Healy and Mike Ross were under the cosh suggests that against one of the world’s best tightheads in Dubit Zirakashvili, Clermont could have the edge. The difference is this time is that for Leinster providing the ballast in the second row will be the outstanding Brad Thorn and Leo Cullen. Those two will have to tackle the aerial threat of Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines and Julien Bonnaire, all world-class talents. From there, the pressure falls on the kickers – Sexton for Leinster, Parra or James for Clermont.
Head to Head: Nathan Hines & Brad Thorn
Two of the game’s elder statesmen with more scars and medals than players would dream of, Hines and Thorn are trademark enforcers who shape matches such as these. For Hines it will be an odd afternoon taking on the team-mates with who this time last year he was on the road to winning a second Heineken Cup with, but he appears to be relishing life in Clermont where he is adored by the fans. Thorn may only be at the club till the end of the season, but his trophy cabinet is staggering. The wealth of experience he brings from both codes is unique. What’s more, it’s only just over six months since he won the Rugby World Cup.
One to Watch: Brock James & Jamie Heaslip
A man with demons to banish, James’ horror show against Leinster two years ago has gone down in Heineken Cup folklore. In the 28-29 loss, James missed 5 penalties and 3 drop goals. Coming off the bench against Saracens three weeks ago however, he was outstanding. The manner of his performance in that quarter-final should give him the confidence he needs ahead of facing the men in blue.
As for Leinster, it has arguably been Jamie Heaslip’s worst season since he burst onto the scene four years ago. The 2009 Lion has made such an impact in subsequent seasons, that his muted performances so far have been surprising. That said, you feel as though a titanic performance is within him. Perhaps it will come on Sunday.
Extremely difficult. Leinster’s pedigree makes them the best European side of the decade, but Clermont in the same period of time have been transformed from serial underachievers to title contenders. A battle of power, discipline and accuracy at goal. Home advantage narrowly edging it. Clermont by 3.