PREVIEW: Clermont v Leinster
CHAMPIONS CUP SEMIFINAL: Leinster may have been through a rebuilding phase this season but the way they defeated Wasps in the quarterfinals has given the Irish province confidence ahead of their Champions Cup semifinal away to French giants Clermont.
With Lions stars Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney both injured, and the English Premiership leaders coming to Dublin, Leinster's home city, with a glittering array of international stars, the last-eight clash against Wasps back on April 1 provided a perfect testing ground for their new-look team.
Having already redeemed their European reputation, with a return to the knockout stages after last season's hugely disappointing campaign that saw them lose their first four pool games in a row for the first time, coach Leo Cullen's new-look side were in no mood to settle for anything less than victory.
With just three of Leinster's starting XV in the quarterfinal that kicked off in their 10-51 defeat by Wasps last year, they turned the English side over with ease, winning 32-17 to book their place in the final four.
It was a remarkable transformation for the three-time European champions given the turnover in personnel.
Joey Carbery and Adam Byrne, who started at fullback and on the wing respectively, made their European debuts for Leinster just this season, with centre Garry Ringrose only making his bow late last term.
Robbie Henshaw has fitted in flawlessly since his pre-season move from Irish rivals Connacht, while scrumhalf Luke McGrath had only one start before this campaign.
Just over a year ago, hooker James Tracy and prop Tadhg Furlong made their first European starts while still in Leinster's academy, while Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier have made the move from academy prospects to first-team regulars with prodigious ease.
As the province prepare for Sunday's semifinal against Clermont, Carbery, McGrath, Ringrose, Tracy, Leavy and Van der Flier are now Ireland caps – having been nowhere near when the 2015 World Cup squad was named.
Coincidentally, it was that tournament that forced rookie Leinster coach Cullen to throw his young charges in at the deep end, with so many of the province's first-team players in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad.
"We had to experience some tough dark times during last year's competition so to come through, everyone has worked incredibly hard to get to this point," Cullen said.
"But we don't want to let ourselves down now either. We understand the challenges ahead and it's a good gauge for how the team has progressed."
Stuart Lancaster, sacked as England coach after the tournament hosts' first-round exit at the World Cup, has revived not only Leinster, but his own reputation, since joining the province's staff in a surprise move last September.
A new contract awaits, with both sides understandably delighted with the early stages of their partnership.
In the same week Wasps were accounted for, Leinster gave senior contracts to some of their academy starlets and renewed the deals of 13 others. It was confirmation of the good work that has been done, and a recognition of the talent at hand.
"I thought at the start of the year we looked really thin on the ground with backs when Luke [Fitzgerald] retired and Ben Te'o left and Eoin Reddan retired," Leinster and Ireland flyhalf Johnny Sexton said recently. "I was thinking 'Jesus, we're in a bit of trouble here'.
"Maybe it's just that the young players have gotten their chance, and maybe we could throw the young guys in a bit more. But we badly needed it and thankfully they came through like they did."
Prediction: This will be Leinster's ninth appearance in the semifinals. Only Munster (12, including this season) and Toulouse (10) have reached the last four more often. This season's No.1 seeds from the pool stage, ASM Clermont Auvergne, are through to the semifinals for the fifth time with their previous four games all coming since the beginning of 2011/12 (Won two, Lost two). Sunday will be Leinster's 150th European Cup match as they become the third club after Toulouse and Munster to reach the milestone. The three-time champions have won 97, drawn five and lost 47 of their previous 149 games. This is the ninth meeting between the sides in Europe, and no club has faced Clermont more often than Leinster in the competition. Only Leicester Tigers (11) have played against the Irish province more often than the Top 14 outfit. Clermont have won their last two matches against Leinster, this after losing five of the first six meetings. However, Leinster have won both knockout clashes between the two - 2010 quarter-final at the RDS and 2012 semifinal in Bordeaux. Leinster are unbeaten in their last five Champions Cup games (Won 4, Drew one); the last time they went on a longer such run was their record breaking 17 game unbeaten streak from 2010 to 2012 (Won 16, Drew one), during which they lifted the trophy twice. Leinster (37) and Clermont (34.3) have averaged more points per game in the competition this season than any other side. Leinster are the only side with a 100 percent scrum success rate on their own ball. Leinster captain, Isa Nacewa, has scored seven tries to date this season, at least two more than any other player, while Clermont's Camille Lopez has made the most try assists with seven. Sébastien Vahaamahina (80/88) has made more tackles than any other player in the competition this season, while teammate Rémi Lamerat has made the most of any back (64/75). Leinster have improved tremendously this season, but they won't have enough to beat a strong Clermont side. Clermont to win by 10 points at least.
Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez,9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly
(captain), 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume.
Replacements:16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic , 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damien Penaud
Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (captain), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Zane Kirchner
Date: Sunday, April 23
Venue: Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon
Kick-off: 16.00 (15.00 British Time; 14.00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England); Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
AFP & @ChampionsCup