Munster v Clermont Auvergne Thomond Park, 5.30pm If it's tea-time at Thomond on a Saturday night and the bearpit is heaving at the seams long before kick-off and a seismic roar sends the home team back into the stands from their warm-up – also sending a tremor or two into the away dressing-room – then it must be a European Cup night. There is, truly, no place quite like it.
It's what Munster and the old Heineken Cup is made of. Match-ups and matches like these against star-studded English or French sides go back to the 90s, and save for the ground being redeveloped, not a lot has changed. This evening Munster will again, to a degree, be seeking to defy the odds against a European heavyweight with a vastly bigger budget (€27.9 million overall, second only to Toulouse in the Top 14) albeit the best team never to win the European Cup.
As it happens, while welcoming back their expanded Irish contingent, Munster have dipped more heavily than normal into their overseas’ recruits, with their quartet of South Africans all starting as short-term signing
makes his second start in the absence of the injured Andrew Smith.
With Clermont arriving locked and fully loaded, and with 14 Test players in their starting line-up of whom only four are non-French, for Munster to punch above their weight the collective has to add up to more the sum of the individual parts.
Given one or even two potential winners of the tournament could exit from this pool before the knock-out stages, it is a group which therefore could come down to a bonus point here or there, or even a kick of a try, at the bare minimum Clermont will want to return to the Auvergne in readiness for Sunday week’s “second leg”.
It’s true that even a bonus point was beyond them on their two previous visits to Thomond Park, but those were back in the 2007/’08 and ’08/’09 seasons. It is perhaps more pertinent to note that, on their last visit to Ireland, they deservedly became the first team to beat Leinster in the tournament’s history at the Aviva, by 28-21, and also won away to Exeter (46-12) and the Scarlets (29-0).
That was also, perhaps, the only time in the tournament’s history when the best team didn’t win the cup, as they were eventually mugged in the final by an altogether less ambitious Toulon.
They also won on the road last season in the pool stages at the Scarlets (31-13) and at Harlequins (16-13). They may have been routed at Twickenham in last season’s semi-finals by Saracens but, as Anthony Foley admitted during the week, they could have won against the same opponents at the Allianz Arena in round one but for one call by the TMO and then a bounce of the ball.
To a degree, such is the phoney war of the first few months in the Top 14, the jury is still out on whether Clermont have been re-invented or even rejuvenated under their newly promoted head coach Franck Azema. They like second without having scaled the heights yet, and although they won in Toulouse that was when the latter were going through the horrors – and Toulouse lost at home again last week to Grenoble.
Jonno Gibbes, who will have a particularly good take on Munster for a visiting coach, has improved their set-piece, and the arrival of Camille Lopez has given them a more assured and calm presence in the chief playmaking cum goal-kicking role. Significantly too, Lopez has the best place-kicking ratio in the Top 14, and as he plays on the gain line more than Brock James, gives Clermont more options.
Munster will have to be at their unrelentingly, swarming best to subdue Les Jaunards, and reproduce the suffocating defensive, kick-chase and recycling game which they reserved for the wins over Leinster and Saracens. Those performances remain the benchmarks for today, but history has shown us that Munster invariably rise to the occasion on these big Saturday nights in their lair.
Ultimately, it will be no surprise if Munster rattle Clermont with their phenomenal intensity, and they have key players in key positions – such as Paul O’Connell, the in-form CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and
– who can steer them to the winning line. When it comes to taking a punt in European Cup rugby, the golden rule still applies. Never back against Munster at Thomond Park.
F Jones; G van den Heever, P Howard, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Casey, BJ Botha, D Foley, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
K O’Byrne, J Cronin, S Archer, B Holland, S Dougall, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, J Murphy.
N Abendanon; N Nakaitaci, A Rougerie, W Fofana, N Nalaga; C Lopez, L Radoslavjevic ; T Domingo, B Kayser, C Ric, J Cudmore, S Vahaamahina, D Chouly (c), J Bonnaire, F Lee.
J Ulugia, V Debaty, D Zirakashvili, J Pierre, A Lapandry, T Lacrampe, B James, J Davies.
Wayne Barnes (Eng).
Results so far:
Munster: Won 27-26 v Sale (a), Won 14-3 v Saracens (h). Clermont: Lost 23-30 v Saracens (h), Won 35-3 v Sale (h).
Leading try scorers:
Munster: David Kilcoyne 2. Clermont: Naipolioni Nalaga, Zac Guildford 2.
Leading points scorers:
Munster: Ian Keatley 21. Clermont: Camille Lopez 28.
Betting (Paddy Powers):
4/9 Munster, 20/1 Draw, 7/4 Clermont. Handicap odds (Clermont +5 pts) 10/11 Munster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Clermont.
Munster to win.