French test the toughest of all
Michael Cheika had no doubt about the extent of the task facing his Leinster team this time two years ago when the Irish province prepared for their first, and so far only, Heineken Cup semi-final on French soil. The Australian had been coach five years by the time the 2009 champions were landed with a trip to Toulouse’s Le Stadium and he was frank enough in the run-up to admit that it was the most difficult assignment in all his time in Dublin.
To this day, only one foreign side has emerged victorious from the continent after a Heineken Cup semi-final. Munster being Munster, they haven’t just done it once but twice and they are achievements that aren’t afforded the recognition they deserve.
The first of those successes was earned just four years after their maiden trip to France when even Mick Galwey’s famous plea to his teammates to keep the score under 50 points couldn’t prevent a 60-19 shellacking in Toulouse.
The two-time champions — who have also claimed a last-four win in England — played four successive semi-finals in France between 2000 and 2003. They won a pair, against Toulouse and Castres, and lost a pair, to Stade Francais and Toulouse, by a point each time.
This was the era that blew the doors off the province’s love affair with the competition. An estimated 3,000 watched them scalp the Toulousains that first year and the travelling Red Army had multiplied by four times that number when they lost to the same side four years on.
There are many means by which a side’s greatness can be judged — and Leinster’s eclipse of Munster’s two trophies entitles them to unreserved respect — but to beat a French side over there would add shine to their growing collection of silver.
“For me, this will be as tough a task as I have faced,” admits current coach Joe Schmidt.
“They have recruited really well this year. They have one of the bigger budgets of the French clubs and the weight they can bring into a game like this and the experience...
“The performances they have put together bring them into this one in a very tough position for a game on what is a reportedly pretty wet ground which will slow down our game. It will aid the big, heavy men they bring and once you get momentum on ground like that...”
The rest was left unsaid but Irish fans need no reminding as to the dangers of what can happen in France when the locals raise their tails and over 30,000 will shout for blood if that happens tomorrow.
Schmidt is prone to making opponents sound like Supermen before games but it was difficult to detect a hint of sugar-coating yesterday as he expounded on players he used to coach and others who have added to the collective since his departure.
Their additions since 2010 include Nathan Hines who never wanted to leave Leinster last summer, former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, French international hooker Benjamin Kayser and Wesley Fofana who has emerged through the ranks to be front and, literally, centre.
So far, their European ambitions have been inextricably linked — and more often than not frustrated — by the three leading Irish provinces and Leinster captain Leo Cullen had a feeling their paths would cross again before this season was out.
“Clermont, along with Toulouse, have been one of the two best teams in France over the last three or four seasons which is clear by their positions in the league where they are considerably ahead of all the others.
“Two years ago we played a semi-final in France and lost so this is a massive challenge and will show what we are made of. I have been looking forward to this game for a long time, in many ways.”
Win it and they can look back on it with pride for ever.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, April 28, 2012