Planet Rugby

Preview: Clermont v Leicester

04th April 2014 12:34


Morgan Parra Ben Youngs Clermont Leicester

Key clash: Morgan Parra v Ben Youngs

Leicester Tigers face the seemingly impossible as they head to Clermont for Saturday's enticing Heineken Cup quarter-final.

It's been five long years since Vern Cotter's Clermont have lost at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. An incredible 74 straight victories cloak Saturday's hosts in an aura of invincibility, sitting pretty at the heart of what seems an impregnable fortress. On the face of it, it's a daunting prospect for the Tigers 23 tasked with storming Château Clermont.

But if ever there was a man for whom such records serve to motivate not intimidate, it is Richard Cockerill. The Leicester boss has a habit, nay fondness, of rubbing people up the wrong way, of saying exactly what he thinks no matter the ramifications. And having spent two years with the French side between 2002 and 2004 - then known as Montferrand - the ex-hooker knows with great clarity the club's psyche, what makes them tick.

Cockerill is correct when he says the pressure is on Clermont. No-one has the Tigers down as favourites. They're not the team with everything to lose, who came so close to glory a year ago, and whose coach is desperate for silverware before swapping the Auvergne for Edinburgh in June.

Cockerill is also right to draw comparisons between the two. Their brands of rugby are similar, a bruising pack laying the foundations for a backline comprised of power, pace and skill. And this rugby plays out before the same backdrop; supporters who live and breathe their club, passionate but knowledgeable souls bursting with pride and expectancy.

In the Top 14 and the Premiership, neither is well-liked outwith their own rugby-mad bubbles. These are tough teams to play, hostile places to travel to - areas of France and England you'd probably never visit but for sport.

It's a case of "No-one likes us, we don't care." And since fans often reserve their deepest hatred for teams who frequently get the better of their own, perhaps that is the greatest compliment that can be paid to either.

And so to Saturday, where the individual battles taking place from 1-15 fall without fail in the category marked "mouth-watering".

The clash between the behemoths in the tight will be colossal. The Tigers' Ed Slater has enjoyed a brilliant season, but faces his stiffest task yet in the form of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore. The visitors simply must match Clermont in the set-piece and at the breakdown if they are to stand a chance of ending the streak.

In the crunch match of the pool stages when Ulster came to Welford Road, Leicester gained the upper hand in the scrum, and made good use of the maul. But Chris Henry's dominance at the ruck saw them concede too many penalties, the metronomic boot of Ruan Pienaar only too glad to pile on the points.

So too must Cockerill's charges shackle a backline most international teams would eye with envy, even though it has been shorn of Sitiveni Sivivatu. Wesley Fofana is the best 12 in Europe, while Naipolioni Nalaga provides devastating power and cutting running lines out wide.

Leicester are not without their own strike-force, however. Manu Tuilagi is back with a bang, and he will surely target the slight Fofana and Brock James when the ball is in his meaty grasp. One Fijian flyer tackles another on the flank as the in-form Niki Goneva does battle with countryman Nalaga, and Owen Williams' recent displays at fly-half will not have gone unnoticed by Warren Gatland with Wales' June Tests in South Africa looming.

There is an unwritten law in French rugby that teams do not lose at home. It's the reason eight points separate those occupying first and eighth place in the Top 14 while the same gap is bridged by 36 points in the Premiership.

This is a law Les Jaunards have not broken since 2009, and one roughly 18,000 raucous diehards will demand to see upheld again come Saturday. The pressure is huge; another European failure will not be tolerated.

But winning becomes a habit, and for Clermont at Michelin, it's more of a full-blown addiction. Ending the run is a mammoth task, but it's one Cockerill and his pack of Tigers will relish. Someone, sometime, has to do it.

Ones to watch:

For Clermont: Keep an eye out for Fritz Lee, the number eight in fine form during the pool stages, whose go forward and ball-carrying so often provides the platform for his backs to shine. Part of a fearsome back-row trio alongside Julien Bonnaire and Damien Chouly.

For Leicester: This is a huge test of Owen Williams' capabilities. He's been a stand-out this season, but he must hold his nerve and look to control things in the Michelin cauldron.

Head-to-head: This one will be decided up front, but the men marshalling the graft and orchestrating the grunt work are set for an engrossing duel. Morgan Parra is a master of game management with a sharp brain and an accurate boot, but Ben Youngs has quietly returned to form while all eyes were trained on England's Six Nations progress, and will look to challenge the Frenchman with darts around the fringes.

Prediction: The Tigers are, typically, hitting their stride at the right time. The early-season injury woes have eased and the form book reads well. But they just don't quite have enough in their arsenal to record what would be a seismic European victory. For me, it's Clermont by ten.

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Jean-Marcellin Buttin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Aurelien Rougerie (c), 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Piere, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Thierry Lacrampe, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Benson Stanley.

Leicester: 15 Matthew Tait, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 AnthonyAllen, 11 Niki Goneva, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Ed Slater (c), 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Logovi'i Mulipola, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Rob Hawkins, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Graham Kitchener, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 David Mele, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Scott Hamilton.

Date: Saturday 5th April
Venue: Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin
Kick-off: 1700 local, 1600 BST
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ire)
Assistant referees: George Clancy, David Wilkinson (both Ire)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ire)

By Jamie Lyall

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