If there is a team in world rugby congenitally incapable of winning on the truly momentous occasion, Clermont Auvergne fit the bill. The Frenchmen have reached three domestic Top 14 finals in as many seasons and finished second each time – to Stade Français, Toulouse and, last year, Perpignan. This is not nearly the half of it. In their previous incarnation as Montferrand, they made it to the climactic weekend of the campaign seven times between 1936 and 2001 without once closing the deal.
The club that gave Jean-Pierre Romeu and Philippe Saint-André to the sport may know what it is to prevail in Europe, but only at second-tier level. Tonight's elite Heineken Cup knockout tie with the holders Leinster in Dublin is their third quarter-final in seven attempts but they have never broken into the last four and, if last weekend's miserable French Championship defeat in Paris was anything to go by, they are not best placed to threaten Brian O'Driscoll and Co.
All of which makes the stellar Irish centre just a little suspicious. "They are a side capable of going anywhere, playing well and winning," O'Driscoll said yesterday after being passed fit to take his place in the Leinster midfield. "They really impress me: they have a lot of French internationals in critical positions who are in excellent form coming off the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam. If they're feeling in the groove, they'll be very dangerous."
O'Driscoll was equally wary of the attention being drawn to the fact that it is five years since a French side won the trophy. "There's a lot being said, once again, about the French being bad travellers, but that suggestion is old news as far as I'm concerned," he remarked. "Clermont themselves performed strongly against Munster in Limerick last year and they will take confidence from that game."
Leinster, impressive in O'Driscoll's absence in winning a tough Magners League derby at Munster a week ago, have recalled Shane Horgan to the right wing in place of Girvan Dempsey and have tinkered with the back five of their pack by shifting the Australian-born Scot Nathan Hines from blind-side flanker to lock and handing a starting place to Kevin McLaughlin. Clermont, meanwhile, have big-name players coming out of their ears: Aurélien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu on the wings, Brock James and Morgan Parra at half-back, Thomas Domingo and Mario Ledesma in the front row and Julien Bonnaire among the loose forwards.
Sale, in a state of blessed relief after winning their profoundly canine relegation scrap with Worcester last week, will chase a further smidgen of Premiership security tonight when they face Saracens at the heavily sanded Edgeley Park – effectively the first inland beach ever to stage big-time professional union fixtures. Unsurprisingly, given the enduring trauma of their situation, the Stockport-based side's director of rugby Kingsley Jones is sticking to the killjoy approach.
"We need a reality check because if Leeds and Worcester win this weekend and we don't, we'll be back where we were seven days ago," commented the Welshman. "We need to keep hold of our fear of relegation. Having said that, if we repeat the attitude and desire we showed against Worcester, we could actually enjoy our run-in."
Meanwhile, the London Irish No 8 Chris Hala'ufia, no stranger to the disciplinary classes thanks to a Pacific Islands tackling style that cannot accurately be described as pacific, has been cited for a dangerous hit on the Wasps outside-half David Walder during last weekend's London derby at Adams Park.