LEINSTER MAY HAVE won two Heineken Cup finals, against bruising English opponents, in the past three seasons but their greatest challenge awaits.
Jonny Sexton admitted on Monday that Sunday’s encounter with Clermont Auvergne at Stade Chaban-Delmas will be an extreme stress-test for the reigning champions.
Sexton secured an injury-time draw for the province, away to Montpellier, earlier this season.
The out-half missed Leinster’s last knock-out match away from home when Toulouse beat them 26-16 at the Stade Municipal. Shaun Berne was in the number 10 jersey but shared kicking duties with Rob Kearney.
Joe Schmidt now has a talented deputy, in Ian Madigan, for Sexton so it is not a major area of concern. However, there are plenty more ponderables to ponder.
Will Brock James keep it together?
With French international David Skrela ruled out of Sunday’s match with a thigh injury, the focus falls on Australian Brock James.
James came off the bench in the quarter-final win over Saracens to kick 17 points and win man-of-the-match. He looked a different player to the one that made a hames of seven scoring opportunities against Leinster at the RDS in January 2010.
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The former Western Force man was bereft of confidence as he missed kick after kick in Clermont’s 29-28 quarter-final loss. James commented:
It wasn’t a great day for me. Luckily enough, I kicked some goals early on (against Saracens). Some days it doesn’t go for you. We lost by two points and I missed two drop goals and five kicks for penalties or conversions.
The Australian has been dependable from the placed ball since he took over from Skrela. He scored a penalty and a drop goal against Montpellier at the weekend before receiving a yellow card early in the second half. Morgan Parra took over the kicking duties and landed four successfully.
The kicking woes of one man will not save Leinster this time out.
Youth and experience v experience and… experience
There are a constellation of big names in the backlines for both sides but we will focus on the men who aim to bring it straight up the middle – the centres.
Many doubted whether Wesley Fofana could carry his club form with Clermont onto the international stage but four tries in four consecutive games proved otherwise.
The 24-year-old has given captain Aurélien Rougerie a new lease of life and the centre was excellent against Saracens, setting up Lee Byrne’s try with a great carry and offload.
Leinster fans will be hoping that Brian O’Driscoll is up to match speed and his performance against Ulster last Friday, more so than his quarter-final try against Cardiff, was proof of that.
Gordon D’Arcy has long accepted his role as a grafter for the team and has improved markedly since O’Driscoll’s return. The Irish duo will need every ounce of their experience and grit to stave off the dangerous Clermont pairing that will enter the match holding a slight edge.
That man Wagga
There has been lots of banter between Clermont lock Nathan Hines and his former Leinster team-mates in the lead up to Sunday’s match.
The 36-year-old from Wagga Wagga has been sweetness and light with Kevin McLaughlin and Brian O’Driscoll but he will be out to cause untold problems to them, and the Leinster pack, in Bordeaux.
Hines will know Leo Cullen, and his call, well but the Leinster captain on Brad Thorn will be ready to show that they have a few new tricks in the bag.
The real trouble could be caused in the loose as Hines will be joined by Canadian juggernaut Jamie Cudmore – a debt collector in his early 20s – who will be eager to make a mark early doors.
Leinster hold the advantage in the back row. Their front three should grind Clermont into a state of parity.
The scrap to watch will be between four of the toughest competitors out there.