It has often been said of Jonathan Sexton that he is the personification of cool. Fans have even gone so far as to nickname him the “Ice-man”. But it is that cool and almost nerveless display that he and all of the Leinster team must exhibit this Sunday.
Leinster are no stranger to their opponents, Clermont Auvergne, as they met in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup last season. Indeed, Leinster were very fortunate to escape the Stade Marcel Michelin with a losing bonus point in 2010 before defeating them in the retrn match at the Aviva Stadium. This time around, however, Leinster are spared an intimidating trip to Clemont’s fortress.
Leinster had a relatively straight-forward pool stage finishing on 24 points and a facile quarter-final victory over Cardiff Blues but this, despite the tie being hosted in the Stade Chaban-Delmas, will represent Joe Schmidt’s toughest game of the season.
Shane Horgan has seen it all in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland. He has felt the pressure of the big occasion but will the expectation weigh too much on the shoulder of Leo Cullen and co?
“I don’t think the guys will feel any pressure from external forces”, said Horgan.
“Any pressure that is floating around in the camp will be all self-imposed. The guys know what is at stake but they have been in this situation before. Just look at the Toulouse game (in the semi-final of 2011), they coped brilliantly with the pressure and prevailed”.
Leinster will have to face former team-mate, Nathan Hines and, with the Scottish giant making a nuisance of himself in the line-out, Horgan believes strategies may have to change.
“Hines will know exactly what Leo (Cullen) prefers to call in the line-out so I expect there to be changes to the game-plan. If the lads can mix it up a bit, then it won’t be straight-forward for Clermont.”
“The scrum will also be critical. Joe (Schmidt) wants everyone in the pack scrummaging as opposed to the flankers keeping an eye on where their scrum-half is going to play the ball. If everyone in the pack is committed to the scrum, it puts pressure on the opposition half-backs to deal with the problem.”
Brian O’Driscoll’s return to fitness over the last few weeks has been a timely boost, with his defence as courageous as ever. Fans were even treated to a vintage BOD break against Ulster. However, with so much focus on the Ireland captain, Horgan believes that O’Driscoll’s team-mates may be able to take advantage.
“Brian’s presence in the team is obviously huge, not just on the pitch but also in the dressing-room. So when he lines up on the pitch, the opposition do fear him. They often put so much focus on him that it can allow one of the other guys to slip through.”
This may not be the all-out attacking game that the fans would love to see but it promises to be an enthralling encounter in Bordeaux. What a statement it would be to have an all-Ireland Heineken Cup in three weeks in Cardiff. If Leinster keep their cool and play their own game, then they will at least hold up their end of the bargain.
Recently retired Leinster player Shane Horgan and former Ulster star Andy Ward were in Dublin today to discuss the chances of their respective teams in the Heineken Cup semi-finals this weekend. The Heineken Cup semi-finals and final are all exclusively live on Sky Sports HD and Sky Go on laptops, phones and tablet devices for all Sky Sports subscribers. For more information, go to sky.com/skygo.