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Monday 22 December 2014

Leinster can thrive in bearpit: Joe

THERE'LL be no theme from Dire Straits' 'Local Hero' or U2's 'A Sort of Homecoming' when Joe Schmidt sets foot on French soil tomorrow afternoon.

It will be the same when the bus carrying the Leinster team snakes around the streets and into Avenue de la République a little after lunchtime on Sunday.

This weekend voyage - albeit to familiar territory - is all about business. The pleasantries can wait for another time.

Experience has taught him that the cool fresh atmosphere and the warmth of the hospitality are the only niceties that will be reserved for his Leinster charges as they bid to do what a multitude of other sides have failed to do over the last 50 games - plunder the Stade Marcel Michelin citadel. That the impressive record will fall one day is inevitable.

Leinster's last meeting with Clermont, the Heineken Cup semi-final victory last April, was staged on seemingly neutral territory in Bordeaux.

"Despite the 'neutral' venue, they had 30,000 supporters to our 3,000," Schmidt quipped ahead of the third-round showdown.

The level of support which the Leinster side enjoy away from home is a source of inspiration, because "they did one heck of a job in staying vocal and driving the team forward that day. And if we can give our pocket of supporters something to cheer about this weekend then they have shown time and time again how loud and supportive they too can be."

There was almost a certain inevitability to the ERC draw last June which pitted the two teams together for what seems now to be an annual battle of wills. In fact, it will be the fifth meeting since their quarter-final clash in 2010, and next weekend's reverse round-four clash in front of a packed Aviva Stadium will be the sixth.

As Schmidt noted earlier this week, Clermont are a team who strengthen their squad on an annual basis.

"Incrementally, Clermont have steadily added value year to year. They could field two sides of international quality and their intent to lift silverware in Europe is clear. It is only a matter of time before they win a big prize again after the Bouclier de Brennus in 2010 because the resources that they have at their disposal would be the envy of most clubs in Europe.

"This year, they have supplemented an already strong panel by bringing in players of the calibre of former All Black Benson Stanley, a strong physical midfield threat; French international Damien Chouly, whose ball-carrying, skill and speed off the back of the scrum has really caught the eye and Napolioni Nalaga, who has returned to Clermont and showed the kind of power and speed he has by scoring against both Scarlets and Exeter in the first two pool games."

Schmidt was a part of the Clermont coaching team which overcame a history of near misses to lift the coveted French title just a few weeks before he took over the reins at Leinster in 2010. He still has fond memories of the game and the celebrations the following day where 65,000 locals crammed into Place de Jaude in the town centre.

Great sides hold great stock in making their fortress impenetrable, so to conquer the team from the renowned volcanic region in the centre of France might well go down as Leinster's greatest ever European challenge.

The gauntlet has been laid and Schmidt is expecting another huge physical battle on Sunday.

"Organisationally, the club are very solid. Their president René Fontès is a really good man, their management team with (director of rugby) Jean-Marc Lhermet and manager Neil McIlroy have been there a long time and do a great job, while Vern (Cotter) is a good friend and very much the man in charge. He's an uncompromising coach who demands a lot and drives the team on.

"There's no doubt that the Stade Marcel Michelin is an intimidating arena and a real cauldron for visiting teams.

"It's probably one of the loudest places in Europe because with the way that the stands are configured, it's as if the crowd are right on top of you.

"And it is a pure rugby field, unlike a lot of other French stadia which are used for several different sports.

"It has been over three and a half years since they last lost a game (at home), and I was actually part of the coaching team that day.

"We were unbeaten at home that season except for Biarritz who scored a last-minute try to win.

"So it's a proud record that they have and if we are to breach it this weekend we will have to play incredibly well.

"I think there's going to be a bit of fear factor for both sides and from my own experience, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

"It's only natural that as a player you'll be anxious to perform against a quality side because it drives the standards within you.

"Fear can be a great motivator, but one thing I know about our group of players here in Leinster is that they will revel playing in that environment.

"These are the games you want to play in and it will be a great occasion."

This week, it has been easier than you might think for the Leinster coach to detach himself from the sentiment of returning to a club which immersed Schmidt and his family with so much care and positivity over a three-year spell.

Over the last few weeks, he grins, he has been "flogged" for tickets from friends in Ireland and France and is delighted to have managed to secure tickets for his wife and three children.

"My family will enjoy five days over there catching up with friends but, for me, I'll be in and out with the team on Saturday and back home on Sunday night."

As if the point hasn't been laid bare enough, he pauses before adding with a deadpan intent: "It's all about business."

Affection can and will be temporarily put on ice.

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