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Leinster will meet champions Toulon in rude health, but questions remain over Clermont

Jono Gibbes is coaching the best team in Europe at the minute, but can they keep their tempo up?

ON SATURDAY NIGHT Clermont gleefully put on a show.

They were simply majestic. Even without Camille Lopez, they had Brock James to slot back in and remind the world what a stylish player he is. The perennial nearly men ran riot on home turf and made a decent Northampton side look a long way out of their depth.

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The problem is, it all feels familiar with Clermont.

The Massif Central club have been among the best clubs in Europe (when not ‘the best’ in Europe) for the best part of the last five years. Yet even after seeing them reach incredible peaks again this season with the ruthless first-half destruction of Munster and Northampton, the nagging doubts remain.

Throughout Vern Cotter’s reign, when Clermont were at their best – expertly generating and using quick ball to deadly effect – it became easy to compare the club to New Zealand. Unfortunately, they also took on the All Blacks’ unwanted trait of failing to deliver as favourites in a knock-out setting.

Throughout their period of dominance in the Heineken and now Champions Cup, the Top14 giants have only a runners-up credit to their name from 2013. Now, they must leave their fortress of Stade Michelin and take on Saracens in Saint-Etienne. The English club are not so much the ‘party-poopers’ of the European Cup as the uninvited guests who are intent on raiding and ransacking any house to come across.

Henry Chavancy and Jonathan Sexton with Richard Wigglesworth and Mako Vunipola Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Leaving aside the 30 – 23 win Saracens claimed in the group stage when Franck Azema’s men visited Allianz Park, Mark McCall’s side promise to make matters very uncomfortable for the competition darlings a fortnight from now. Clermont wow the world when they are in full flight and everything clicks. The ability to grind out a narrow, ugly win is not so regularly a trait.

Perhaps the influence of forwards coach Jono Gibbes will bring about a change in that regard when the business end of Europe comes calling. But Saracens – with that ‘Wolf Pack’ led by Jackson Wray and Jacques Burger – will be licking their lips at the prospect of spoiling Clermont’s big day out.

It’s a tactic that has been incredibly effective; and brought Sarries to a semi-final in three consecutive years. If nothing else, the meeting of the competition’s last two runners-up promise a clash of styles one hell of a game for the Saturday semi-final.

Mathieu Bastareaud celebrates scoring his side's opening try with his team Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The pedigree of the teams in the second semi-final could not be more different. Far from nearly men, on 18 April, the Sunday match-up brings together the clubs who have dominated the competition with two wins apiece from the last four finals.

There was an odd feeling on Lansdowne Road after Leinster defeated Bath on Saturday. The bar set in the eastern province means mere progression isn’t always enough, but negativity around a team in Europe’s final four is still enough to take you aback. Watching a final 20 minutes in Dublin with Leinster hanging on and Bath in the ascendancy did nothing for the confidence among fans of the eastern province.

Jamie Heaslip Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Memories of the 29 – 14 defeat at Stade Mayol in last season’s quarter-final are still clear in the memory. So although Matt O’Connor can now call upon Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy to bolster his pack for the tough task in Saint Etienne, the sheer big-game nous of the stars in the Toulon side give them an aura of immovable champions.

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For hope, Leinster could look at the manner in which Wasps were allowed a sniff of yesterday’s quarter-final. Yet even then, Bernard Laporte’s side reached out with two hands to grab the one slice of luck they had not earned. That slice came in the large form of 77-cap All Black Ali Williams. And when they comfortably reached for an extra gear, the lock who should have been sin-binned instead found himself on the end of a wide pattern that crushed Wasps’ feint hope.

Matt Giteau Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Two week’s worth of preparation could change everything.

Leinster do have time to find a rhythm after the rush from Six Nations to Champions Cup mode. And perhaps Toulon are actually a declining force instead of a superior side playing in second gear.

But with the semi-final line-ups still freshly formed and the acrid smell still lingering from Clermont’s fireworks, it still feels like precious little power has shifted since the Heineken Cup was renamed.

The champions are poised to go back-to-back-to-back.

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Sean Farrell

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