Clermont’s time looks to have finally arrived
Munster may have a great pedigree but they go into this Heineken Cup semi-final as firm underdogs
Two inspirational figures, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, discuss tactics during yesterday’s captain’s run in Montpellier. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Whatever way you look at it, Clermont have been the standout team in Europe this season. They are the Cup’s only unbeaten side and whether individually or collectively they lead virtually every table, be it points, tries, offloads, line breaks, metres gained. You name it, they’ve been the best, and with memories still vivid amongst squad and supporters alike of last season’s agonising semi-final defeat to Leinster in Bordeaux, there’s no more motivated team around either.
Munster really do appear to have drawn the shortest of straws, for on the day they equal Toulouse’s record of 10 semi-finals, this will be their eighth ‘away’ tie, and their sixth of six against French teams. They’ve won four of their previous seven semi-finals, which is remarkable given there have only been 11 ‘away’ wins out of 34 ties at this stage, and two of five in France.
Former players and a host more besides have been queuing up to claim this would be their best one-off win ever, which is perhaps a disservice to the class of 2000 which overcame Toulouse under a burning hot sun in Bordeaux.
“I think sometimes fear plays a big role in how we play, and however much we had against Harlequins is probably doubled this time around,” said Paul O’Connell yesterday, having been demonised along with the Pro 12 disciplinary process in a double page spread in Midi Olympique last Monday.
“We realise totally how tough a game this is going to be. We know where we need to be mentally and physically to win this game. We’re going to have to be at the highest pitch we’ve ever been as players.”
At least this time they won’t have such heat to cope with – save for the heat generated by Wesley Fofana, Sivetini Sivivatu, Napolioni Nalaga et al – with 20 degrees-plus temperatures and clear blue sky hereabouts this week giving way to unseasonal rain and cooler climes. The forecast is for around 10 or 11 degrees come kick-off.
“It is good that it is not 29/30 given where we come from,” admitted Rob Penney. “It would have been a real difficult issue but it is not now. I think the moisture probably affects both sides equally so that will not have any major effect on the game.”
Vern Cotter observed that “given the number of days that Munster would play in these conditions in Ireland, it’s possibly an advantage for them”. Aurelien Rougerie’s leadership will be missed, as well as Gerhard Vosloo from the starting team along with Daniel Kotze, David Skrela and Benson Stanley from the bench, and Cotter admitted that an historic Heineken Cup/Top 14 double was “virtually impossible”. Yet is a measure of the club’s priorities, that 23 planes have already been reserved to fly to Dublin for the final three weeks hence.
If Munster are to emulate the Bordeaux heroes of 2000, and so begin creating a new legacy, Penney echoed O’Connell’s sentiments when admitting they would have to be 20 per cent better than in the quarters. “We’re going to have to dig real deep. But to be fair if anyone can this group can.”
Munster have managed the least amount of missed tackles per game, 7.3, in the tournament, but in addition to employing a near blitz defence, with O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and co frustrating Clermont with choke tackles, their scrum and lineout will have to be stoic for 80 minutes and, one imagines without much recourse to their bench.
Last ever game
They won the quarter-final through that wondrous right boot of Ronan O’Gara, who could possibly be playing his last ever game in this his 10th semi-final and 110th Heineken Cup game. But having reverted to a more direct game, which also makes use of James Downey’s hard carrying, Munster will need to go wide too, feed off Casey Laulala’s offloading and utilise the undoubted cutting edge of Simon Zebo and the restored Keith Earls.
But ultimately, with space at a premium, eventually Clermont’s unremitting physicality in all the contact areas wore Leinster down. With Morgan Parra masterfully pulling the strings and kicking everything, it’s doubtful many teams in Europe could have managed to get within a score of Clermont that day. Yet not only was that Clermont’s first win in seven attempts on Irish soil, in addition to Leinster’s two wins in France over Clermont, they, Ulster and Munster (twice) all returned from the Stade Marcel Michelin with bonus-point defeats.
The way Munster backed up the quarter-final win against Leinster six days later suggested a corner had been turned. They might well surprise people with both the intensity and quality of their performance. They might even be still very much in the game around the hour mark but ultimately, this day feels like Clermont’s time. The competition’s best team have a funny habit of winning this Cup.
CLERMONT: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King, W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire (c), J Bardy, D Chouly. Replacements: T Paulo, V Debaty, C Ric, J Pierre, A Lapandry, L Radosavljevic, S Nakaitaci, J-M Buttin.
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O’Connell (c), P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Varley, W Du Preez, J Ryan, B Holland, P Butler, C Sheridan, I Keatley, D Hurley.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Forecast: Clermont to win.