Three key battles pivotal to Munster v Clermont showdown
O’ Connell v Bonnaire; Keatley v Lopez; Stander v Lee
Predicting the likely composition of the Clermont Auvergne team for Saturday’s European Champions Cup against Munster at Thomond Park is a fraught exercise based on the depth of their squad, an example of which was the fact that they could rest Wesley Fofana, Camille Lopez, Damien Chouly and Sebastien Vahaamahina in their 27-19 defeat to Toulon in Nice.
Morgan Parra was due to return after a shoulder injury but the suggestion is that he’ll return this weekend in Limerick. An indication of Clermont coach, Frank Azema’s thinking in relation to the back-to-back matches against the Irish province can be gleaned from who he chooses at outhalf.
Brock James wore the number 10 jersey against Toulon and the Australian certainly has experience of playing against Munster and at Thomond Park (2008-2009) but Lopez is French national coach Philippe Saint Andre’s preferred outhalf having played all three of the November Tests and producing decent performances, a high point of which was his cross-kick for a Teddy Thomas try.
Lopez is a good place-kicker – he may not do so if Parra plays – and has good distribution and vision. His battle with Munster’s Ian Keatley will depend principally on how the respective packs fare. In Munster’s best performances this season, Keatley has been the lightning rod, something that gets overlooked at times when he makes a mistake here and there.
Mauling from lineouts is a strength, for both teams, so the battle for ascendancy out of touch will be one of the pivotal facets of the game. Paul O’Connell had a brilliant autumn series; the highlight from an individual perspective was his man-of-the-match performance in the victory over Australia. He’s the Munster technician and tactician, a role filled by Julien Bonnaire for Clermont down through the years.
The Frenchman didn’t start against Toulon but he came on within 10 minutes and although Clermont have plenty of depth in this area, Bonnaire’s experience would be a useful tool given the venue and opposition.
Fritz Lee features in several of the statistical categories for his team in this campaign including most metres (88), most tackles (21), and most offloads (six). The Samoan-born former New Zealand Sevens player has a very rounded skill set that includes an ability to get over the gainline. It’s a quality he shares with Munster’s CJ Stander.
The latter has been the Irish province’s best player; his ability to get his team on the front foot, facilitating Munster’s run of seven consecutive victories. Three key battle if Munster are to secure their 100th victory in Europe on Saturday and a blemish free 24th home success against French clubs.
HEAD TO HEADS
Height: 1.95m (6’ 6”)
Weight: 112kg (17st 8lbs)
Caps: 96 (6 tries)
Why’s he so important: He’s a totemic figure for his team in all aspects of the game but against Clermont his lineout calling will be very important. The French side pride themselves on a powerful rolling maul as a primary attacking platform so he’ll have to make the call about when to attack their throw or defend on the ground. He’ll also have to be clever on the Munster throw.
Trivia: He likes sports autobiographies and is an avid reader with a wide range of interests. He is also a keen/good golfer and once played with European Tour player Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen in an Irish Open Pro-Am at Adare Manor.
Height: 1.92m (6’ 4”)
Weight: 100kg (15st 10lbs)
Caps: 75 (6 tries)
Why’s he so important: Forget about his age, he remains one of the finest lineout forwards in European rugby, his athleticism and instincts making him a formidable competitor. Jumps at six on Clermont ball, occasionally two, but will usually be found at the front on opposition ball. It would be a surprise if Clermont ignored his experience for Thomond Park.
Trivia: In January of this year he played over half a Top 14 match against Toulouse – Clermont lost 19-12 – with a broken arm. Post match X-rays revealed cracks in the ulna and radius bones in his forearm. He was subsequently ruled out for six weeks but to play 41 minutes with a broken arm in a rugby match is Rory Best-like.
Height: 1.80m (5’11”)
Weight: 91kg (14st 4lbs)
Caps: 3 (17 points)
Why’s he so important: His flair and running ability give Munster a different dimension in attack and while prone to the odd misplaced pass and occasional place-kicking issues he is a naturally gifted player who possesses, as he showed in Manchester earlier in the campaign the temperament to deliver on the big occasions.
Trivia: He was a member of the Ireland under-20 team that won a Grand Slam under the coaching baton of Eric Elwood in 2007, an age-grade team that included future Munster team-mates Felix Jones and Keith Earls.
Height: 1.76m (5’9”)
Weight: 85kg (13st 5lbs)
Caps: 5 (37 points)
Why he’s so important: It’s a generally accepted maxim that if Clermont Auvergne had a top quality outhalf during Vern Cotter’s reign they might have celebrated one or more Heineken Cup triumphs and tagged on a couple of more Top 14 titles. Lopez played in all three of France’s November Test matches, scoring 37 points, demonstrating a facility to play at that level.
Trivia: He was played for three different clubs in the last three seasons, Bordeaux-Begles (in 2013 he masterminded a 41-0 victory over Toulon); Perpignan, where he missed the second half of the season with a serious knee injury and this year Clermont Auvergne.
BIG BALL CARRIERS
Position: Number eight
Height: 1.89m (6’2”)
Weight: 114kg (17st 13lbs)
Why he’s so important: He’s been Munster’s outstanding player this season. His ability to break tackles, to get miles over the gainline and is on a par to chip in with tries. He is virtually unstoppable from close-range. He gives his team go-forward ball and leads the stats: top carrier (36), most metres (147), most defenders beaten (5) and most turnovers (2).
Trivia: He was a champion discus thrower as a teenager before turning his attention full-time to rugby. He captained South Africa at the under-20 World Cup in 2010 and trained with the senior Springboks in 2012 but didn’t make the final squad.
Position: Number eight
Height: 1.90 (6’3”)
Weight: 110kg (17st 4lbs)
Caps: 0 (he played Sevens for the All Blacks)
Why he’s so important: His Samoan heritage offers an inkling of the physicality he brings to the position, both in attack and defence. He is a primary ball carrier for the French club and possesses an excellent offloading game. He gives them a direct style to go with their back play.
Trivia: He originally arrived on a short term three-month contract in September 2013 as a medical joker replacement for Elvis Vermeulen at the French club and such was the impression he made, he was quickly snapped up on a more lucrative three year deal, two months later.