Key Clash Preview: Leinster v Clermont

Leinster: Still top of Pool Two despite losing last weekend at the Stade Marcel Michelin, the 2009 champions have a chance to open up a gap between themselves and the rest of the pack this Saturday afternoon. Clermont and Racing Metro are hot on their heels, so winning at home this weekend is hugely important. The bonus point they picked up in the 20-13 loss, as often happens in the Heineken Cup, could prove hugely influential especially in such a tight group. Leinster may potentially be boosted this weekend by the return of talisman Brian O’Driscoll, though Eoin O’Malley did well filling in for the Ireland captain in France.

Clermont: A win this weekend puts Clermont firmly in the driving seat of this pool. The fact that Leinster picked up a losing bonus point will have hurt Vern Cotter’s side after the Top 14 Champions put in a strong performance. There is a wonderful balance to their side, and in the backs especially they have plenty of experience in this competition. Winning in Dublin will be a big ask but Clermont have more than enough ability to snatch a win. With Morgan Parra’s excellent goal-kicking and leadership at scrum-half, Clermont have solved a problem that caused them such suffering in the past with Brock James.

What to expect:

After last weekend’s game, Clermont might look to play with a slightly more conservative style than when they played at home. The threat of Leinster’s running game is an obvious concern for the Clermont coaching staff, and therefore they may be tempted to use their forwards more; Sione Lauaki, Alex Lapandry, and Julien Bonnaire should be expected to frequently rumble around the park. If Leinster can get their running game going, particularly with the return of O’Driscoll at outside centre, then this is where they are more likely to win the game.

All eyes on:

Sione Lauaki’s stock was very high when it became apparent he was looking for a move away from New Zealand earlier this year, and he was not short of potential suitors either. But Clermont won the race to sign the former Waikato Chief, and his performances so far for his new side have been very impressive. Combining immense power with surprising pace, Lauaki is an animal. Watch him break tackles for fun come Saturday.

Fergus McFadden for Leinster has been slowly edging his way into the side, though finding a spot with the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy and O’Driscoll plus others starting every week hasn’t been helped his cause. But his performances this season have been strong, and with O’Driscoll’s pace fading slightly with age, he offers something very different at outside centre or on the wing. His try against Ulster in last year’s Magners League encounter showcased what an engine he has.

Head to Head:

There were a number of contenders for this week’s head to head, including Lauaki v Jamie Heaslip and Mike Ross v Thomas Domingo, but the pick is Brian O’Driscoll up against Aurelien Rougerie. Talking about O’Driscoll is so hard because every superlative invented has already been used. His experience at this level gives him an edge over O’Malley, and he seems to lift every team he plays in, be it Leinster, Ireland or the Lions. Coming up against the big physical presence of Rougerie however will provide him with a massive challenge. The France international made his name playing on the wing but his recent conversion to outside centre is not yet confirmed as a success. He does though have the physical attributes and soft hands to create space for the outside runners of Napoliono Nalaga and Julien Malzieu, who are both deadly finishers.

Weather: Sleet and a heavy wind at the RDS could give the kickers an afternoon to forget.

Last year’s result: 9/4/10 Leinster 29-28 Clermont Auvergne

Prediction: Home advantage normally would guarantee a Leinster victory given their impressive record at the RDS. But Clermont after burning away their Top 14 jinx last season have a new found confidence, and therefore have a better chance than ever to pick up a victory. The one point loss last season in the quarter-final will still sting and they would love nothing more than to bury the ghost of that defeat. Clermont by 3.

by Ben Coles

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