Belfast Telegraph

French giants are out to live up to their massive reputation

On call: Greg Laidlaw is on the Clermont bench
On call: Greg Laidlaw is on the Clermont bench

By Michael Sadlier

Greig Laidlaw stood near the wall chatting with team manager and fellow Scot Neil McIlroy and looked for all the world that he would rather be somewhere else.

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In fairness, his demeanour slightly lightened when he finally sat down to perform his post-match duties for those in the media room - the vast majority - requiring an English-speaking player to provide some reaction after November's loss to Ulster at the Kingspan.

The emphasis was on taking a bonus point from Belfast but there was no hiding that a strong Clermont selection had under-performed and, essentially, stuck to what has largely become a template when French teams try to play in Belfast.

Even then, though, it looked as if today's meeting at the raucous Stade Marcel-Michelin might just hold the key to winning Pool Three and, funnily enough, here we are.

With both sides looking shoo-ins to win their respective final group games against teams with nothing to play for, today's clash has so much at stake with Clermont plotting more than just revenge, they want to top the pool and chase down a home quarter-final.

The team from the Auvergne also need to put in another big European performance in front of their voluble supporters to keep the dream alive of maybe hoisting the Champions Cup for the first time and also distract full-on attention from what has been, so far, a strangely indifferent Top 14 season.

They are currently lying eighth in the table having won seven times from 13 matches and are only three points ahead of Jeremy Davidson's Brive.

Though Clermont are still within striking distance of a crucial top six finish, they are now 16 points adrift of Lyon who are in second - which is Clermont's final league position from last season when they ended up losing the final to Toulouse - and, seemingly, unable to put consistent results together.

Today offers Clermont an opportunity to make amends for domestic matters by reminding their support base that Europe is very much a live issue.

They have not held back in terms of selection with a mighty looking pack and a backline designed to do damage with the ball.

Fritz Lee will again be the focal point of the Clermont pack and their desire to dominate whether at set-piece time or through launching the side's well-known preference for off-loading when going forward.

Getting in Ulster's faces from the off - they will want to attack their lineout and scrum - is the hardly surprising intention with the control brought at half-back by Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez all about putting Clermont in the right parts of the field to increase the pressure of the intended squeeze.

But there will be much more than that about Clermont's game. Utilising the pace and elusiveness of Damian Penaud and Alivereti Raka's power is likely to be high on the agenda.

Their bench also looks strong as it contains Laidlaw, Sitaleki Timani and Alexandre Fischer as well as other pretty decent replacements too.

Clermont badly want to give their season a moment of ignition and Europe offers that opportunity, even against a side who have already got the better of them.

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