Home advantage still counts for much in European rugby, so that defending champions Leinster’s challenge, taking on Clermont-Auvergne in France in the second of the weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-finals, appears insurmountable.
French clubs are notoriously bad travellers outside of France, but a trip down the autoroute to Bordeaux will not be enough to disturb the equilibrium of Vern Cotter‘s men. Besides, in the previous round, Clermont showed that they weren’t even put off even when playing in Watford.
The manner in which the Michelin men crushed Saracens, one of England’s outstanding sides this season, 22-3, in the quarter-finals last month ought to have been enough to underline their trophy credentials.
Yet Clermont can be backed at 2.0 to win Sunday’s game, and are still available at 2.75 to win the trophy at the Twickenham final next month.
The Dubliners are favourites, at 2.30, to retain this year’s trophy. Leinster’s odds for Sunday’s match are 1.85.
With Ulster tipped to go through from the Saturday semi-final against Edinburgh, whichever side wins on Sunday is going to be heavily fancied to win European club rugby’s biggest prize. Ulster are 4.50 to become the 2012 Heineken Cup winners; Edinburgh are friendless at 15.00 to become the first Scottish side to lift the European cup.
Leinster mullered Ulster in their Celtic League match last week even though they rested a handful of key players, ahead of what is the team’s fourth Heineken Cup semi-final in four years.
Gordon D'Arcy, Jamie Heaslip and Isa Nacewa return to the squad this week, with coach Joe Schmidt expected to name his side on Friday.
Brian O'Driscoll is fully fit after injury, as he showed in the demolition of Cardiff Blues in the quarter-final, and the former Ireland and Lions skipper will make a massive difference for Leinster at Stade Chaban-Delmas.
The fact that Leinster have gone 13 Heineken Cup games without defeat is compelling evidence in the favour of Leo Cullen and his side, until you realise that their last defeat in this competition was the 20-13 loss at Clermont in last season's pool stages.
It is an easy mistake for punters to make to back a side based on history and reputation, rather than recent form. On that basis, no one would fancy Clermont’s perpetual under-achievers.
Clermont had never won the French title, 10 times losing in finals, until Cotter led them to victory in 2010. This year, the club’s centenary, they are on the verge of another championship, with only Toulouse capable of overcoming them.
Kiwi Cotter’s achievements with Clermont have been well-noted: he has already been approached about the England coach’s job that has been given to Stuart Lancaster, and he is now many people’s favourite to succeed World Cup-winner Graham Henry when he retires from coaching the All Blacks. A European Cup win will surely seal Cotter’s credentials for his dream job.
With French sides having massive financial clout compare to clubs in the rest of Europe, Clermont have been able to assemble a squad of all-stars.
They have a formidable array of attacking options in the backs, led by skipper Aurelien Rougerie, with outside-half Brock James linking with Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu and All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu.
Sunday could even become something of a head-to-head between the two outstanding full-backs from the British Isles: Wales’s Lee Byrne, earning big euro with Clermont, will be keen to lay down a marker for his claim to go on next summer’s Lions tour against Leinster’s Rob Kearney, who is faultless under the aerial ball and has scored six tries in seven European matches this term.
Up front, lock forward Nathan Hines - a Heineken Cup winner with Leinster 11 months ago - has been in prime form while the battle at the breakdown will pitch the world-class Heaslip and Sean O'Brien against Julien Bonnaire.
This game is undoubtedly the pick of the two semi-finals, and will be tight. Clermont to win by 11-15 points (at 9.00) is tempting, but a French club win by 6-10 points – effectively one converted try the difference – at 6.50 might be the better bet.