ASM Clermont Auvergne v Munster, Stade Marcel-Michelin, Saturday, 5.30pm Irish time – Live on BT Sport
If Munster’s draw looked difficult before a ball was kicked last weekend, it looks even more challenging after the sheer attacking brilliance Clermont displayed in their 51-38 win over Bristol last weekend.
Clermont's blend of Pacific Island-infused power and pace engineered seven tries, almost all of them crackers, with five of them scored by their fleet-footed Japanese fullback Kotaro Matsushima and the rangy, side-stepping Damian Penaud.
In tandem with Alivereti Raka, if that outside trio are shown the edges they’ll take them in a flash. Admittedly, Munster are less likely to permit such a fast and loose encounter. Bristol perhaps facilitated them by playing an outside-in defence, and Munster will have to both push up hard but also drift to the outside.
The scale of Clermont's win surprised many French pundits, especially coming a week after their defeat at home by Montpellier when not far off full-strength. Although the Clermont scrum was an issue that day and creaked again in the second half against Bristol, Munster's hand has been weakened by James Cronin joining long-term absentee Dave Kilcoyne on the sidelines with an unspecified injury in training this week.
Hence, 21-year-old Academy loosehead Josh Wycherley will make just his third start, and first in Europe. “It’s a brilliant opportunity for Josh on his first European start. He has performed well for us this season and he is more than ready for this opportunity,” said Johann van Graan.
Rhys Marshall has been promoted at hooker, while Shane Daly makes his first Munster appearance of the season on the left wing, with Keith Earls shifting across to the right, as Andrew Conway is unavailable for personal reasons.
In the absence of Sébastien Vahaamahina (knee) and Sitaleki Timani (shoulder), Franck Azéma has recalled brilliant Fijian flanker Peceli Yato (ruled out last week due to a passport issue), with 21-year-old flanker Clement Lanen coming into the backrow.
Azéma also rotates at loosehead, hooker and scrumhalf, where the sharper running threat of Sébastien Bézy is picked ahead Morgan Parra, while the French Sevens captain Jean-Pascal Barraque returns from the facial injury he suffered in France's win over Italy three weeks ago.
While the Red Army will be disappointed not to make their fourth pilgrimage to the Stade Marcel-Michelin, the Yellow Army won’t be there either. Even so, a measure of the task facing Munster is that Clermont have won 31 of their last 32 home games during the pool stages of the Cup, including their last nine in a row.
ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Kotaro Matsushima; Damian Penaud, Jean-Pascal Barraque, George Moala, Alivereti Raka; Camille Lopez (capt), Sébastien Bézy; Peni Ravai, Etienne Fourcade, Rabah Slimani; Paul Jedrasiak, Peceli Yato; Judicaël Cancoriet, Clement Lanen, Fritz Lee.
Replacements: Adrien Pélissié, Etienne Falgoux, Sipili Falatea, Thibaud Lanen, Edward Annandale, Morgan Parra, Tim Nanai-Williams, Tavite Veredamu.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Josh Wycherley, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O'Byrne, Liam O'Connor, John Ryan, Fineen Wycherley, Billy Holland, Craig Casey, Rory Scannell, Jack O'Donoghue.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Forecast: Clermont to win.