Ospreys v ASM Clermont Auvergne | Friday 15 January | Liberty Stadium | 21:40
We enter the penultimate week of the Champions Cup Pool stages this coming weekend and with qualifying positions still up for grabs, we’re in for some enthralling games of rugby.
Our first port of call this weekend is the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, where pool five’s second-placed side, The Ospreys, take on first placed Clermont. With only two points separating the two sides, and the third-placed Exeter Chiefs set to claim the full five-point haul from their game against cellar dwellers, Bordeaux, we’re likely to see a cagey contest at the Liberty on Friday evening.
I’ve had a bit of a mare with my predictions recently but I assure this is only a temporary loss of form. I’ve had a long hard look through the fixtures list this week and I’m confident I’ve got a few winners for you to back.
To Win (80 Mins)
They have the quality to beat the French giants but their inconsistent form makes me a bit nervy. Their performances in the tournament, thus far illustrate my point. They opened their campaign with a hugely impressive twelve-point victory over the Exeter Chiefs. The second round saw them go down in Clermont by five points – which, to be honest, was expected.
Despite having a much better-looking squad on paper than the French side, they went down to Bordeaux by six points in their previous outing. That game was preceded by the reverse fixture in which the Welsh side defeated Bordeaux by three points at the Liberty.
As the above shows, Ospreys are capable of putting in a magnificent performance one week and then a shocker the next. Which is quite strange when you look at how many international players are in their squad. Scott Baldwin, Dan Biggar, Dan Evans, Eli Walker, and Alun Wyn Jones have over a hundred caps for Wales between them, while Brendon Leonard and Jeff Hassler have turned out for New Zealand and Canada respectively.
Perhaps, it’s not a problem of lacking international experience but rather a problem of missing one international player in particular. Welsh incumbent scrumhalf, Rhys Webb, has been on the sidelines since injuring his foot at last year’s World Cup. The fleet-footed nine’s combination play with Dan Biggar has been key for Ospreys and the Welsh national side over the past few years. And while ex-Waikato Chief, Brendon Leonard, is a capable understudy for the scrumhalf role, he’s nowhere near as dynamic as Webb.
Despite missing their talismanic nine, Ospreys will still be rather confident heading into this one. The last five meetings between Clermont and Ospreys have been one by whichever team hosted the fixture. Another stat that will fill Ospreys with optimism is their home record against French opposition – they have only lost one of their last fourteen home games against French clubs.
They are in the pound seat to make it out of Pool 5, but that may well change, come the conclusion of this weekend. Much like their opponents for Friday night, Clermont have struggled for consistency this season. While their Champions Cup performances don’t really pay testament to this, their domestic results do.
They’ve brushed aside the likes of Castres and Oyannax – both teams are near the foot of the table – they’ve lost to a few teams you’d really expect them to beat. An out of sorts Montpellier beat them in October. They also went down to Stade and were hammered by Toulon the following month. December also saw a mixed bag of results for them. They started the month with a narrow win over Brive in the French Top 14 but were dismantled by Exeter in the Champions Cup the following week. They then beat Exeter by 30 points in the reverse Champions Cup fixture but the euphoria of that win would be short lived as they went down to Racing Metro in the Top 14 the following week.
They have however, started 2016 off on a much more positive note than they closed off 2015. Big wins over Agen and Bordeaux has seen them move into joint first on the Top 14 log. And things could get even better for the French giants if they managed to beat the Ospreys this weekend. As a victory at the Liberty Stadium would assure their progress through to the next round of the Champions Cup.
If they are to do this, they’re going to need the likes of Nick Abendanon and David Strettle to fire. The English duo have been in terrific form this season. They have been Clermont's two most potent attacking weapons. Their ability to counter-attack from deep inside their own half will help mitigate Dan Biggar’s expert tactical kicking game.
In terms of team news, Clermont have suffered a big blow this week, with Canadian veteran, Jamie Cudmore being ruled out of the clash. His ability to dominate at lineout time will be sorely missed by the French club.
Verdict: Osprey 18/10
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