As Jeremy Kyle would say, “well well well”. We’re here again, in the semi final of Europe’s most treasured rugby competition! It doesn’t get much better than this, well, unless you’re in the final, but that’s a story for another write up!
At the end of May, people will look back at the season and realise that this year’s competition has probably been one of the most difficult challenge for all teams involved. No group was easy for any team this year and was almost impossible to envisage who might come out on top of each pool at the beginning of the season. That said, the winner will be undisputed and will fully deserve the trophy. The winner will also create history
- If Munster win, they will become the third team to win 3 championships
- If Saracens win, they will become the third team to win back to back championships
- If Clermont win, they will be lifting their very first Champions Cup trophy
- If Leinster win, they will equal the highest number of championship title wins (Toulouse have 4)
Around this time in 2012, I remember feeling the buzz of anticipation and excitement about the semi final stage of the Heineken Cup. I drove past Keily’s pub in Donnybrook the day before the semi final and there was a huge banner over the pub saying “On the first day, BOD created space……..and he scored.” I loved that banner and I’ll never forget it.
Ulster faced Edinburgh and Leinster faced Clermont. I remember the media saying that whoever wins the Clermont v Leinster match will win the cup. No offence to Ulster and Edinburgh but after what we saw in the final, the media got it bang on, 42,14 to Leinster.
Similarly, this year, I think whoever wins the Clermont v Leinster match, will go on to claim the trophy in May. The brand of rugby played in Lyon this weekend will eclipse what is on offer at the Aviva. There is something special about Clermont this season, they are playing very slick rugby and you can see that they really want to succeed. But they’re up against Leinster, Clermont’s tormentor on a couple of occasions at this stage of the competition. They have been hit by some major injuries for this weekend and will be missing some key players as a result. However, due to their massive squad of incredible talent from all over the world, they have some very talented players to slot in.
Leinster will have to be at their very best this weekend, nothing less will do the job for us. And I think this weekend will be their best performance of the season so far. Leinster have hit some bumps along the way in this competition but they have learned valuable lessons each time and have not made the same mistake twice. The quarter final against Wasps is a perfect example of this, it was probably our most complete game of the season in terms of attack and defence. We controlled every facet of that match against a team who were favourites to win it. Of the 4 away teams in the quarter finals, Wasps were way ahead of the others in terms of skill, performances and position in their leagues. Funnily enough, we scored the highest amount of points in our quarter final compared to the other 3 games that weekend.
What impact will the team selection from last weekend have on this week’s game? Well, the selection call by Leo Cullen still baffles me, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t even put a few first choice players on the bench. Although we won the match and actually performed incredibly well for 80 minutes, it wont have much bearing on this weekend. Probably 5 players from last weekend will feature against Clermont; James Tracey, Luke McGrath, Adam Byrne, Ross Byrne and Sean Cronin. Unfortunately, Dave Kearney will miss out due to injury and Cian Healy has been banned for two matches.
When I think of the Leinster squad, I start to think of the villainous Borg from Star Trek. The way we outplayed a full strength Connacht team in the Sportsground (where they have only lost once this season) in every facet of the game with our B team was amazing to watch. It was shocking too as I wasn’t expecting that at all, mostly due to the respect and credit I would give to Connacht on most days, especially at home. Leinster played like our first choice team, and in some ways, even better. That leads me to believe that there is a synergy within the squad, a united hunger and a game plan that works no matter who takes to the field. Look at the 6 Nations for example, we won all four Pro12 games during that period, all of which were secured with a winning bonus point. We hadn’t done that since 2012 and we all know how that season finished!!
Leinster have a cohesive and harmonious mentality this season, they have an equal hunger throughout the squad. They, like the Borg, are truly a “Collective”, and in terms of teams trying to beat us, resistance is futile! It’s funny, I thought it would be cringey to use the Star Trek and Borg reference in my preview (and still do) but I just watched Blues Talk after typing all this up and the lads more or less used the same reference!!
Where will the game be won
Clermont have a superior lineout and probably a better kicking game than Leinster. Leinster have the stronger scrum and can vary their game a little bit more than Clermont. Prepare for a quick ball masterclass from both sides, they both love to move the ball quickly out wide and stun defenders with two-on-one attacking patterns. Clermont may win the battle of the air and rucks, so it’s up to Leinster to prepare a plan to nullify some of that potential dominance. Clermont, like Wasps, have some incredible backs so if we give them any holes, they’ll be gone. Leinster’s defence struggled against Wasps hard attacking lines in the Aviva and coughed up two great tries as a result. You can be sure that Clermont will be looking to expose that chink in our armour again, and having Jono Gibbs in the coaching room, he’ll have the inside knowledge to show Clermont the way to the try line.
Physicality will be key in this game too, our forwards have the edge against Clermont. We will need to have the pack bombarding Clermont’s line for 80 minutes in attempt to slow their game down. Clermont have great forwards themselves but given that they all played last weekend and Leinster rested theirs, could we presume that our pack will be fitter? Time will tell.
Despite Leinster resting a lot of players last week (almost a full starting 15), I still think we’ll turn up and perform to the standard that we need. Will we play as well as if we had played some of our first choice players last weekend? Well, I think we’ll know after 10 minutes what impact that had. Personally, that hunger and desire I mentioned earlier is a fire that has been burning brightly in the squad throughout the season and I think no matter who takes to the field this Sunday, we will have 23 warriors determined to win.
I think Clermont will be extremely determined to win too, their hearts have been broken at this stage of the tournament so many times over the years and they’ll be doing everything they can to get over the line.
I think the game will be won by the team that shows more passion but importantly doesn’t let the passion and hunger boil over. I would expect a couple of yellow cards during this match, potentially against Clermont because of what is at stake for them. They’ll be going into this match having lost two Champions Cup finals, two semi finals, and three quarter finals, that may galvanise them, but it may also destroy them. Their form coming into this game is interesting too, they’ve lost 4 of their last 6 games and have been struggling a little bit for form. Leinster will be feeling confident, we have an unbeaten run since Christmas (bar a draw against Castres). We have lost only 4 out of 27 games in all competitions this season, and of our 23 wins, we’ve racked up 16 bonus point wins!!! SIXTEEN.
Where will it be lost
If Leinster aren’t fully prepared for this match due to the selection calls last week, and we dont turn up for the first 10 minutes for example, I think we’ll be in serious trouble. Clermont will be looking for a whiff of complacency from Leinster and if they get it, they’ll score and score all day long. Complacency from either side will lose them the match, both teams are just too good and the game will probably come down to a couple of silly mistakes from either side. Does that figure of 16 bonus point wins present a sign that we haven’t been challenged this season or it could be that we are just unstoppable. Clermont will certainly provide answers to that come the final whistle on Sunday.
They say (and by they, I mean the ABL media) that the odds are always stacked against the away team in knockout rugby. Luckily, Leinster are the away team for this Sunday because it’s Leinster who had to go away twice in the knockout stages of two of our subsequent three Heineken Cup title victories (Harlequins quarter final 2009, Clermont 2011). There’s a belief in this squad that they can beat anyone, home or away, true champions must have that belief and mentality and I think they will against Clermont. I dont think it will be a runaway game for us but I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll win by two scores at least.
Clermont 20, Leinster 28
By the way, did you hear about the weather warning in Lyon for this weekend……….