Weekend preview: James wants to put boot in Irish hopes of retaining Cup

 

Only a fully paid-up member of the Institute of Clairvoyants or an absolute fool would wager a penny piece on the outcome of tomorrow's Heineken Cup semi-final between Clermont Auvergne, the form side in France, and Leinster, the form side in Europe.

There might, however, be a reasonable bet to be had on the match achieving classic status – perhaps on the scale of the gem of a last-four tie unearthed in Dublin eight years ago.

Strange to relate, the Dubliners of Leinster were not involved that day. Instead, the Irish effort was spearheaded by Munster, then the most obvious title contenders from the Emerald Isle. They accumulated 32 points, enough to have won all but two of the previous semi-finals and a tally surpassed on only one occasion since, but they were ultimately broken by the Londoners, who scored late tries through Tom Voyce and Trevor Leota to decide the mother and father of all Heineken Cup contests.

There have been a few decent games in the years since 2004 – we are, after all, talking Heineken Cup rugby here; the crème de la crème for all true union aficionados – and one of them featured both tomorrow's contestants. The Leinster-Clermont quarter-final in 2010, staged in front of a capacity 20,000 audience at the Royal Dublin Showground, was played at an intensity above and beyond anything witnessed in that year's Six Nations and it was only right and proper that the combatants should have been separated by a single, solitary point. (It went the way of the home side, largely due to the chronic inability of the Clermont goalkicker Brock James to hit a cow's backside with a banjo).

This self-same James will be on view in "neutral" Bordeaux this weekend, but if the quality of the Australian's marksmanship in the quarter-final victory at Saracens was anything to go by, he will not be missing too often this time. The Victorian started that match on the bench but spent only three minutes "shining the pine", as rugby folk say in his country, before replacing the injured David Skrela. "What idiot put Skrela off the field?" asked one of the English champions' management team as James set about bisecting the sticks from all angles.

The problem faced by Leinster as they attempt to become the first team to defend the Heineken title since Martin Johnson led Leicester to back-to-back victories in the early Noughties, is that Clermont can lose half a dozen key players early in a match and barely miss a beat. In the unlikely event of one of their hard-nut locks – Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines are as aggressive a pairing as it is possible to imagine – finishing second in a physical confrontation, the Frenchmen can ask the World Cup lock Julien Pierre to do a turn. Should one of the high-class centre pairing of Aurélien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana disappear prematurely, on comes Regan King, the fine midfielder from New Zealand.

Yet Leinster know that together with Clermont, they are the best side left in the competition – that by winning tomorrow, they will give themselves a golden opportunity to emulate Leicester. With Brian O'Driscoll back between the shafts at centre and playing ever more ferociously as he sees the light begin to die on the horizon, they will be every bit as cussed and competitive as Lawrence Dallaglio and his fellow Wasps were that day in the Irish capital. What is more, their coach, Joe Schmidt, can predict pretty much everything his opposite number, Vern Cotter, will bring to the party. Both have roots in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, they worked together at Clermont, and they remain the closest of confidants.

Yesterday, the tournament custodians confirmed that if either Clermont or Edinburgh win this season's title, Wasps will be included in next year's competition as the highest-placed non-qualifying club in the official rankings. The Londoners have slipped ahead of Bath in the seasonal adjustment, although they will lose their European place if they are relegated from the Premiership.

Heineken Cup: Semi-final line-ups

Ulster v Edinburgh Today, 5.45pm, Sky Sports 1

Ulster S Terblanche, A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar, T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Replacements N Brady, P McAllister, A Macklin, L Stevenson, R Diack, P Marshall, I Humphreys, A D'Arcy,

Edinburgh T Brown, L Jones, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser, G Laidlaw (capt), M Blair, A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Denton, R Rennie, N Talei. Replacements A Kelly, K Traynor, J Gilding, S Turnbull, R Grant, C Leck, P Godman, J Thompson.

Referee R Poite (Fr)

Clermont v Leinster Tomorrow, 4pm, Sky Sports 2

Clermont L Byrne, S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, J Malzieu, B James, M Parra, L Faure, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, E Vermeulen. Replacements T Paulo, V Debaty, D Kotze, J Pierre, J Bardy, L Radoslavjevic, R King, J-M Buttin.

Leinster R Kearney, I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald, J Sexton, I Boss, C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), B Thorn, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements S Cronin, H van der Merwe, N White, D Toner, K McLaughlin, E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden.

Referee W Barnes (Eng)

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