Two of Europe's finest sides do battle again on Saturday as Leinster host Clermont in the key reverse fixture of last week's close encounter in France. Cormac O' Keeffe previews the action...
"I expect the three-time kings of Europe to open up somewhat and will be backing them to cover the 6.5 point handicap."
Leinster make four changes from last week, including two in the front row. Richardt Strauss replacing Sean Cronin was expected but Heinke van der Merwe coming in for Cian Healy is somewhat surprising. Healy scored two tries against Clermont two years ago and provides more options in the loose. However, Joe Schmidt has prioritised scrummaging power in opting for the two South-African born props. Shane Jennings replaces Kevin McLaughlin in the back row, while Eoin Reddan comes in for Isaac Boss at scrum half.
Clermont have made two changes with Raphael Chaume replacing Vincent Debaty in the front row and Julien Bardy coming in for Alex Lapandry in the back row. Furthermore, there is a doubt over the fitness of Brock James and David Skrela is poised to replace the South African if needed.
Clermont extended their remarkable unbeaten home record to 51 games and ended Leinster's 17-game unbeaten European run with a 15-12 win in a try-less encounter. The losing bonus point may be crucial for Leinster and it is likely that both sides may make it out of this group. However, this weekend's match is crucial as home advantage in the quarter finals is historically the most important factor is determining who progresses.
Despite losing, it was perhaps Leinster's finest performance of the season to date eventhough they were missing a number of key players. The backline was particularly weakened but stepped up and put in a hugely impressive performance. The Leinster defence was as solid as always, keeping the home side scoreless in the second half and it is improbably that many sides have come closer to breaking the French side's home winning streak.
Last week's win for Clermont was revenge for their dramatic defeat in last year's semi-final, where Fofana dropped the ball over the line in the last two minutes and Leinster defended as if their lives depended on it to hang on for what was the key win in their title defence. They managed to keep their try-line intact on that day too against one of Europe's most potent attacking threats.
Clermont have lost on their last three visits to Dublin, including an enthralling quarter-final tie two seasons ago where, as with the Fofana-related escape, Leinster were lucky that Brock James botched a late drop goal that would have sent Leinster crashing out. Instead, as last season, the Irish side went on to lift the Heineken Cup.
The scrum was keenly contested last week and the Leinster front row held their own against a powerful Clermont front three, despite starting with Sean Cronin over Richardt Strauss. The battle of the kickers was key and Parra just about got the better of Sexton. Both areas will be key once again; however, I expect a more open game this week as The Aviva will provide a much better surface for running rugby and I expect a higher scoring game than we saw last week. Leinster's home record is almost as formidable as Clermont's and the European champions are justifiable favourites for this game in my opinion.
Remarkably, Leinster have only scored one try in their three European matches this season but I expect them to add handsomely to this tally this weekend. They played very well last week and I expect them to step it up another gear this weekend in front of a bumper Aviva crowd. Although a repeat of the bonus-point 52-27 rout of Bath at this stage last year is out of the question I expect the three-time kings of Europe to open up somewhat and will be backing them to cover the 6.5 point handicap. I also recommend backing them in the straight and half-time/full-time markets. Joe Schmidt may have been overlooked for Lion's duties but this weekend he'll once against show why he's the best coach in Europe.