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Leinster Rugby are determined to score another famous victory over ASM Clermont Auvergne on French soil in their bid to become European Rugby’s most successful side.
But if they are to see-off the Champions Cup pool stage top seeds at Lyon’s Matmut Stade de Gerland, they will have to do it without a pair of key-men. Ireland prop Cian Healey will miss the crunch last-four clash after being handed a two-week ban by a PRO12 disciplinary panel for illegally charging into a ruck. Flying wing Dave Kearney has been ruled out after injuring his ankle against Connacht, just weeks after returning to the fold.
Healey was a key-man in Bordeaux when Leinster claimed a famous 19-15 triumph over Clermont, before they went on to claim their third title over Ulster at Twickenham. But Clermont have injury worries of their own as they prepare to face the PRO12 leaders, and coach Stuart Lancaster believes his side have their eyes on the Champions Cup prize.
He said: “Since I've been here, I've been unbelievably impressed with the quality of players that are here, the mindset to want to get better and, also, the mindset to go to a fourth European Cup final. It is a massive, massive driver for the players.
“The players, quite rightly, are very proud and the players who played in those finals are very proud of what they have achieved in the past. They want to do it again for the fourth time. It is only Toulouse who have won the European Cup four times. That is the big, big driver for them. I can't fault the players. They've been outstanding.”
French heavyweights Clermont will have home country advantage and a yellow and blue wall of support in Lyon this weekend. But they have received a number of injury blows as they aim to finally lift the Champions Cup trophy.
Influential backs Wesley Fofana, Noa Nakaitaci and Isaia Toeava will be missed, as Clermont attempt to arrest a run of three defeats in five matches. France lock Sébastien Vahaamahina also an injury worry.
Clermont will have the benefit of some inside information from forwards coach Jono Gibbes, who coached Leinster during their golden era of European success. And head coach Franck Azema says his men are fully focused after so many near misses in the knockout rounds.
He said: “From time to time you find yourself representing the whole of France because other teams are eliminated. But above all we represent the Auvergne in this semi-final. We go into this game with a lot of concentration and clarity with the quality of the opponent that we will meet.
“The injury situation looks better on the whole, we're going to see it again this afternoon. Sebastien took a big shot on the shoulder but it's okay.”
- This will be Leinster's ninth appearance in the semi-finals. Only Munster (12, including this season) and Toulouse (10) have reached the last four more often.
- This season's No 1 seeds from the pool stage, ASM Clermont Auvergne, are through to the semi-finals for the fifth time with their previous four games all coming since the beginning of 2011/12 (W2, L2).
- Sunday will be Leinster's 150th European Cup match as they become the third club after Toulouse and Munster to reach the milestone. The three-time champions have won 97, drawn five and lost 47 of their previous 149 games.
- This is the ninth meeting between the sides in Europe, and no club has faced Clermont more often than Leinster in the competition. Only Leicester Tigers (11) have played against the Irish province more often than the TOP 14 outfit.
- Clermont have won their last two matches against Leinster, this after losing five of the first six meetings. However, Leinster have won both knockout clashes between the two – the 2010 quarter-final at the RDS and the 2012 semi-final in Bordeaux.
- Leinster are unbeaten in their last five Champions Cup games (W4, D1); the last time they went on a longer such run was their record breaking 17 game unbeaten streak from 2010 to 2012 (W16, D1), during which they lifted the trophy twice.
- Leinster (37) and Clermont (34.3) have averaged more points per game in the competition this season than any other side.
- Leinster are the only side with a 100% scrum success rate on their own ball.
- Leinster captain, Isa Nacewa, has scored seven tries to date this season, at least two more than any other player, while Clermont's Camille Lopez has made the most try assists with seven.
- Sébastien Vahaamahina (80/88) has made more tackles than any other player in the competition this season, while teammate Rémi Lamerat has made the most of any back (64/75).
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Two second half drop goals from man of the match Camille Lopez steered ASM Clermont Auvergne past Leinster and into a third Champions Cup final after a fantastic semi-final in Lyon.
They will now meet reigning champions Saracens in Edinburgh at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, 13 May to try to win the ultimate prize in world club rugby after falling at the final hurdle against RC Toulon in 2013 and 2015.
The last-four clash saw Clermont dominate the first period through tries from Peceli Yato after only four minutes and former England wing David Strettle. But after the break Leinster came roaring back into the contest and four penalties from the reliable boot of Johnny Sexton cut the 15-3 interval deficit to a mere three points.
The game’s crucial moment came when a visiting try for back row man Dan Leavy was ruled out for holding at a ruck that was spotted by touch judge Ian Davies, confirmed by the TMO and gave referee Nigel Owens no option other than to pull Leinster back. Had the try counted, Leinster would have hit the front, but instead Morgan Parra kicked the resulting penalty.
After that came two sublime drop goals from Lopez and that was enough to get the TOP14 side over the finish line, even though Garry Ringrose ran 50 metres to score a sensational try that Sexton improved.
Yato opened the scoring, the flanker racing onto a Strettle chip to cross in the right corner. The excellent Parra converted and added a penalty and with Leinster skipper Isa Nacewa yellow carded for tugging back Strettle as he chased a Scott Spedding kick, it was a nightmare start for the visitors.
With a man advantage, Parra’s flat pass then found Strettle who sped past Leinster flanker Leavy to add Clermont’s second with Joey Carberry unable to stop him. Parra’s conversion went wide, but the French team were utterly dominant.
Leinster’s failure to do the basics was letting them down, their line-out was particularly poor and contributed to giving Clermont the field position from which Strettle went over. Leo Cullen’s men were in real trouble, but they did rally and after Parra put a penalty wide, Sexton finally got Leinster on the board with the last kick of the first half.
The second period started as the first ended with Sexton adding his second penalty and Leinster were now playing with much more aggression. The visitors were transformed and with Clermont tiring in the French sun, Ringrose went close to a try following some sustained Irish possession.
There was no score, but two more kicks from Sexton meant there were now just three points between the teams. Leinster then thought they’d got their first try, Fergus McFadden leading a breakout from which Leavy made it to the line to dot down.
Leinster had to really chase the game after the Leavy try was ruled out and Parra kicked his second penalty. Ringrose gave them a lifeline with his wonder try, stepping in midfield and making his way to the line from halfway.
Lopez kicked a 72nd minute penalty and a second drop goal before Sexton kicked his fifth penalty of the day.
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