The Heineken Cup is rightly regarded as the northern hemisphere’s most enthralling competition and more drama is in store on Sunday, as Bordeaux plays host to a semi-final clash which many see as the final in all but name.
Perennial contenders Clermont Auvergne face off against the aristocrats of European rugby, Leinster, in a fixture whose winner will, in all likelihood, become 2012 Heineken Cup champions.
The French outfit are pegged as narrow 9/10 favourites to win the game, with the holders available at evens and the draw priced at a shorter-than-usual 14/1.
Clermont coach Vern Cotter faces some minor selection headaches ahead of Sunday’s fixture as outhalf David Skrela and loose forward Gerhard Vosloo are ruled out through injury.
However, in both cases, there are ready-made replacements prepared to enter the fray. In Brock James, Cotter has a man who seeks redemption following a minor meltdown the last time these sides faced each other in knock-out competition.
On that evening, James missed five kicks at goal and three drop goal efforts. His comments in the media this week suggest he is eager to ensure history remembers him for something more favourable.
Furthermore, in French international Alexandre Lapandry, Les Jaunards possess a more than capable replacement for Vosloo.
Combined with the superb Julien Bonnaire, expect to see Lapandry go after Leinster’s line-out ball. Both are 6’4” and light enough for their lifters to catapult them skywards on opposition throws.
Leinster’s line-out has been undeniably vulnerable in recent times and if James is in from the start, they will look to play a tightly-controlled territorial game with their set piece and pack trying to stamp their mark on the game early on.
Barnes can be a finicky customer at the ruck area and the five games he has officiated in the Heineken Cup this season have produced a whopping 111 penalty decisions. If this is indicative of how he intends to call Sunday’s game, we will see plenty of shots at goal.
Clermont know that this is where they can get on top and if their vociferous supporters (who are set to number 20,000) can spur them on, they will turn the screw up front.
Leinster, for their part, are going to have to meet fire with fire. Their injury-free squad are well aware of the task ahead.
The likes of Richardt Strauss, Kevin McLoughlin and Brad Thorn are going to have to raise their intensity to unchartered levels to stop the Clermont pack gaining the upper hand physically.
With Mike Ross in situ, Leinster should achieve parity in the scrum and if they can use this as an attacking platform, we saw what damage they can wreak using first phase ball in the quarter-final win over Cardiff Blues.
The combination of Jonny Sexton and the fit-again Brian O’Driscoll provides a spark in the back division that is unmatched in the competition. If Leinster’s pack can deliver them clean ball they will provide a stern examination of the Clermont defence.
Leinster will also look to free up their big carriers in midfield in the hope that they can find a mismatch with the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy attacking the narrow channels between James and Fofana, neither of whom are physically imposing defenders.
With a game as finely balanced as this, the result may be impacted by the actions of others and, in this case, referee Wayne Barnes will have the final word.
Barnes can be a finicky customer at the ruck area and the five games that he has officiated thus far in the Heineken Cup this season have produced a whopping 111 penalty decisions. If this is indicative of how he intends to call Sunday’s game, we will see plenty of shots at goal.
Leinster’s 66 penalties conceded in this year’s tournament – compared to Clermont’s 78 – suggest that the Irish side are better primed to deal with the whims of Mr Barnes.
In Sexton, they possess one of the best kickers playing the game. Cured of the shakiness he showed in last year’s World Cup, he is now kicking at a 90% success rate for his side in the Pro12 league.
James, on the other hand, is a decent but unspectacular kicker and is prone to wobbles on the big day. Morgan Parra’s considerable talents may be called into action at some point if his pivot’s kicking is not finding the mark. However, at that point, the damage may already be done.
With that in mind, this is going to be a closely-fought affair decided by which team can take their opportunities and points.
In such a game of inches, Leinster have the experience and the marksmen in their ranks to progress to a Twickenham final against Ulster on May 19th by the smallest of margins.
Recommended bet: Leinster to win by 1-12 points @ 31/20 Outside punt: Clermont to be leading at half-time but Leinster to win @ 13/2
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