Dave Gantly looks ahead to Munster’s titanic Heineken Cup tussle with Clermont Auvergne in France at the weekend.
With just six days to go until Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland announces his squad for the tour to Australia, this weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-final between Clermont Auvergne and Munster is all that more anticipated by rugby fans. As if it needed to be.
Following on from that majestic performance at The Stoop against Harlequins is going to be a tough task for Munster to say the least. Clermont Auvergne have set the Heineken Cup alight this season and when you look at their first XV, It isn’t hard to see why. They have been dubbed the ‘fantasy team of rugby’. With owners who are willing to splash the cash, they have put together a truly remarkable outfit.
At scrum half, Morgan Parra is rightly regarded as one of the best in the world at nine, with his darting runs and crisp passing. He comes up against Lions hopeful Conor Murray in what should be a fierce battle. Murray was simply brilliant against Harlequins in the quarter-final, outplaying Harlequins Scrum half Danny Care. This performance and more is needed this Saturday.
With it being expected that Ronan O’ Gara will return for duty, good service is crucial for O’ Gara to use his tactical kicking to put Munster on the front foot. Ian Keatley has performed well in O’ Gara’s absence but in a match of such high magnitude, it is set up for O’Gara to take centre stage. He will be up against Australian out-half Brock James who has scored 351 points in 38 games in his European exploits – both Amlin and Heineken Cup. Not a bad return. In terms of Clermont’s other offensive weapons, you have to look no further than inside centre Wesley Fofana and New Zealand winger Sitiveni Sivivatu. These two were simply unplayable against Montpellier in the quarter-final, with Sivivatu’s try standing out in particular. His pace and strength are second to none and will need much addressing by Munster’s defensive line. His partner in crime Wesley Fofana’s quick feet and strength will no doubt cause Munster many problems. We all know what he did to England in the Six Nations. A brilliant individual try which summed up his talent.
Captain Aurelien Rougerie is a doubt for the game having injured his thigh in Top 14 action last weekend. If fit, either Keith Earls or Casey Laulala face a very physical battle in the middle of the park.
Looking at both packs, it truly does promise to be ferocious. A very lucky Paul O’Connell will look to continue his good form after being cleared of any wrongdoing after he kicked Leinster winger Dave Kearney in the head while attempting to clear the ball. He was colossal against Harlequins upon his return from injury – so much so that he is being mentioned as a possible Lions test starter. His mind will only be on tackling Clermont. however. The rest will look after itself. At blindside Peter O’Mahony will also look to continue his excellent form which has propelled him in to Lions reckoning. He is one of the in-form flankers in Europe at the moment and another big performance would give Warren Gatland plenty of food for thought. At openside, Tommy O’Donnell should retain his place after an excellent showing against Harlequins and seems to be growing with every game. Being mentioned as a future Ireland regular will do his confidence no harm.
In terms of attacking options, skipper Dougie Howlett has been ruled out with a persistent shoulder injury, which is a blow – meaning Denis Hurley, should keep his place. Known more for his defensive capabilities, Hurley will be under severe pressure. Ireland winger Simon Zebo will look to show off his skills against Sivivatu and with confidence in abundance he is Munster’s main attacking threat. Both his ability to kick and his composure under the high ball this season have been top-class. Munster will hope he gets the space to cause serious damage this weekend. As for the centre partnership, James Downey flourished at the Stoop being used as a battering ram to create space for Laulala and it paid dividends. A repeat of those performances is a big ask, especially if Rougerie is passed fit. Also, if Earls is passed fit does he replace Laulala? It would be a bitter pill for Laulala to swallow given his showing in the quarter-final, but we shall see.
Clermont Auvergne have not lost at home in 59 matches. To say Munster are up against is an understatement, but they have been written off before and the label of underdogs only seems to spur them on. With the red army behind them, anything is impossible.
This Saturday evening, Munster will once again have to show that famous Heineken Cup spirit.
Sport Is Everything. Dave Gantly.
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