DFP Header Area

PETER JACKSON: Only Clermont Auvergne can prevent RaboDirect PRO12 winner

In the finest tradition of their freewheeling founder, the Michelin Men of Clermont Auvergne have bounced their way to 40 straight home wins including those against every European champion bar one.


Toulouse, Brive, Ulster, Northampton, Leicester, Wasps, Munster and Leinster have all been there during that long sequence, sometimes more than once.   

Bath remain the only European Cup winner not to have lost at the Stade Marcel Michelin if only because they have never been drawn to play there.

For all their invincibility at home, Clermont will be the odd team out come Heineken Cup semi-final weekend on April 28-29.    

A club formed by the son of the founder of the tyre giant, they are the only one of the last four not to have got there from the RaboDirect PRO12 and, by extension, the only obstacle to the first all-Celtic final.

The draw offers all sorts of intriguing possibilities.   Edinburgh, whose inspiring win over Toulouse at Murrayfield has already gone down in history, now travel to Dublin as reward for putting Scottish rugby where it has never been before.    

Ulster, their opponents at the new Lansdowne Road on April 28, will be favourites to reach their first final since 1999, understandably so after the ruthless disposal of Munster at Thomond Park.    Edinburgh under former Ireland scrum-half Michael Bradley will not be the least bit bothered to be going in as underdogs.

Clermont know all about Ulster, having survived one of their few close home shaves in edging past the northern province 19-15 during the last round of the pool competition in the New Year. Leinster knew how they felt.   

The holders lost there in December 2010 when tries from Anthony Floch and Julien Malzieu and four goals from Morgan Parra added up to a 20-13 win.   When they go back to France later in the month, the holders will not be unhappy to be giving Clermont’s impregnable fortress the widest of berths.

The club with a name almost as long as its winning home streak – Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne – have not lost there since November 21, 2009, the day Biarritz sneaked it 16-13 with a try from Paul Couet-Lannes and the obligatory cluster of  goals from Dimitri Yachvili.

The Heineken semi-final on Sunday April 29 will be a long way away for the ‘home’ team, in Bordeaux at a ground named in honour of a Gaullist prime minister of France from the early Seventies.   The Stade Chaban-Delmas is where Munster famously knocked Toulouse out en route to their first European final twelve years ago.

It is also where Ireland scraped past Georgia during the 2007 World Cup and where Clermont beat Toulouse 19-13 in a Top 14 semi-final three years ago when the Michelin Men won 19-9 despite Australian fly half Brock James missing three late shots at goal and the Canadian lock Jamie Cudmore spending time in the sin-bin, not for the first time.

James had waited a long time for the chance to exorcise the demons of his last European quarter-final, against Leinster at the RDS two years ago.    In just about the cruellest example of a goalkicker stricken by the yips, the bearded Aussie missed five penalties and three drops and Clermont lost by a single point, 29-28.

Against Saracens at Vicarage Road on Sunday afternoon, Clermont parked James on the bench in case of emergency.   As luck would have it, David Skrela barely negotiated the first two minutes before being forced into the earliest of exits.

James responded as if he had never missed a pressure kick in his life, ensuring Clermont put the English champions to the sword.

Leinster could afford to put their feet up and watch from afar after another exhilarating exhibition of their all-singing, all-dancing act.   

If Cardiff Blues were not demoralised before the match over the fall-out from their sacking of Gavin Henson, never mind the enforced loss of Grand Slam duo Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton, they certainly were by the finish.

Rarely can a quarter-finalist have been stopped so far inside the distance. The gap in class was such that Wales’ last hope spent almost three-quarters of the mis-match trying to keep the score down.   

That they restricted it to 34-3 had as much to do with the holders easing up as it did to the Blues’ playing for their pride.

Brian O’Driscoll, back with a try which leaves him one short of equalling Vincent Clerc’s all-time European record of 32, sounded less than ecstatic at reaching a fourth successive semi-final.

“It’s not an overly elated dressing room,” he said.  “We gave up far too much possession to be pleased.”

Leinster demand a lot of themselves these days, not surprisingly given the high-achieving mentality brought by Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander with the inside track on Clermont.   

He finished his stint as backs’ coach six months after their play-off win in Bordeaux and will be back there soon enough for what will surely be the most severe test of Leinster’s right to renew their European rule for another twelve months.

My XV of the weekend:

15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

14 Isa Nacewa (Leinster)

13 Aurélien Rougerie (Clermont)

12 Lifeimi Mafi (Munster)

11 Craig Gilroy (Ulster)

10 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh)

  9 Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)

  1 Cian Healy (Leinster)

  2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh)

  3 John Afoa (Ulster)

  4 Nathan Hines (Clermont)

  5 Dan Tuohy (Ulster)

  6 Stephen Ferris (Ulster)

  7 Ross Rennie (Edinburgh)

  8 Pedrie Wannenburg (Ulster)