Meeting for the first time since the 2006 Heineken Cup final, Biarritz Olympique and Munster will fight it out at Estadio Anoeta this afternoon with the prize for the winners a place in the May 22 decider against Toulouse at the Stade de France. Can Munster overcome some untimely injuries to qualify for their fifth Heineken Cup final in eleven years?
HEINEKEN CUP: SEMI-FINAL: Sunday, May 2
BIARRITZ OLYMPIQUE v MUNSTER, Estadio Anoeta, 4.15pm (3.15pm Irish time) (live Sky Sports 2)
Team News: Wingers Ian Dowling and Doug Howlett have been withdrawn from the Munster starting line-up for Sunday’s Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Biarritz Olympique in San Sebastian.
Both Dowling and Howlett had been named in the province’s side early on Friday but failed to come through the Captain’s Run on Friday evening at Thomond Park, with their respective knee and hamstring injuries troubling them.
It means that Lifeimi Mafi has been promoted from the bench to take Howlett’s right wing, while Denis Hurley will take over on the other wing from Dowling.
Tom Gleeson, who is yet to make his Heineken Cup debut, has been added to Munster’s replacements bench, joining his Cork Constitution colleague Scott Deasy who is another possible cup debutant.
The inclusion of Mafi and Hurley in the team means there are two changes to the Munster side that started the 33-19 quarter-final victory over Northampton Saints.
Keith Earls, who has shaken off a groin injury, resumes his partnership with Jean de Villiers in midfield, while Mick O’Driscoll continues to deputise for injured captain Paul O’Connell (groin) in the second row.
Munster have won four previous semi-finals in the Heineken Cup and famously beat Biarritz Olympique in the 2006 decider in Cardiff.
Meanwhile, Biarritz coaches Jean-Michel Gonzalez and Jack Isaac have made a number of alterations to the team that edged out the Ospreys at the quarter-final stage.
There are three personnel changes and one positional switch in the back-line. The Auckland-born Karmichael Hunt, who will play Aussie Rules from next year, has moved from centre to out-half, nudging Julien Peyrelongue out of the side.
Hunt will partner place-kicker Dimitri Yachvili at half-back, and with Damien Traille sidelined by a forearm injury, Arnaud Mignardi and England international Ayoola Erinle will combine in the hosts’ midfield.
Jean-Baptiste Gobelet has also taken Ilikena Bolakoro’s place on the left wing, having come on as a replacement in the previous round.
Manuel Carizza makes way for South African Trevor Hall in the second row, and the England-capped Magnus Lund returns in a reshuffled back row alongside fellow flanker Wenceslas Lauret and number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy.
Harinordoquy, one of the stars of France’s Grand Slam win this year, is expected to wear a face mask against Munster, after breaking his nose in a clash with Sebastien Chabal in the Biarritz v Racing Metro 92 game two weeks ago.
BIARRITZ OLYMPIQUE: Iain Balshaw; Takudzwa Ngwenya, Arnaud Mignardi, Ayoola Erinle, Jean-Baptiste Gobelet; Karmichael Hunt, Dimitri Yachvili; Eduard Coetzee, Benoit August, Campbell Johnstone, Jerome Thion (capt), Trevor Hall, Magnus Lund, Wenceslas Lauret, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements: Romain Terrain, Fabien Barcella, Remy Hugues, Manuel Carizza, Florian Faure, Valentin Courrent, Julien Peyrelongue, Philippe Bidabe.
MUNSTER: Paul Warwick; Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls, Jean de Villiers, Denis Hurley; Ronan O’Gara (capt), Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Damien Varley, Julien Brugnaut, Tony Buckley, Nick Williams, Niall Ronan, Peter Stringer, Tom Gleeson, Scott Deasy.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Assistant Referees: Chris Whit, Stuart Terheege (both England)
Television Match Official: Graham Hughes (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Biarritz Olympique to win: 11/10; Draw: 20/1; Munster to win: 8/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Ronan O’Gara (Munster) – “It’s a big game and one we are excited about. As a young player, you may become fearful and nervous about these games.
“But there will be nerves among the older lads in the team on Sunday. At this stage of the week we are excited and it’s a game we are looking forward to.
“It’s a Heineken Cup semi-final away from home in Spain against a Basque team so we know we are playing for big stakes.
“It’s easy to produce the goods at Thomond Park but we need to go away to a neutral venue with a hugely intimating home support and get stuck into the game and show what we are made of. If we’re on our game then we will be in with a good chance but if we’re not then we’ll be beaten. That is something I find difficult to accept.
“We have been here before but that’s in the past. The great thing about sport is that it happens in the present. We are experienced in big atmospheres and games like these are why we play the game.
“The feeling of winning big games is very hard to talk about especially what happens in the game or what happens in the changing room.
“But that’s what we aspire for and the reason we put in all those long hours during pre-season. We work for days like Sunday.
“And what is great about this bunch of players and management is that the core have been together for the last ten years.
“We have proven how consistent we are and we’re at the semi-final stage again. We are only two steps away from winning the competition and one step from the final.
“But the feelings of disappointment or elation are magnified by ten from the quarter-finals onto the semi-finals. We can talk all day about it but it’s all about actions.”
Jerome Thion (Biarritz Olympique) – “There is no way we see the semi-final as a revenge game from the 2006 final. Circumstances are different, players have changed and both teams have evolved since then.
“We will approach the game as we would do for any high ranking competition semi-final and our frame of mind is very much set on beating our opponents, whoever they may be.
“But we know it is going to be difficult to achieve and that we will have to be clinical in all that we do to be able to reach that final step.
“It’s always good to play at Estadio Anoeta because we know most of the crowd will be behind us and even though we know that the Munster fans will travel down to the Basque country in their thousands, we like having our fixtures there as we always get a hearty welcome and the party atmosphere is tremendous.
“When we lost our penultimate round game of the Top 14 against Racing Metro 92, it was our last chance gone of reaching sixth place in the league.
“It also means that we have to hope that a French club is crowned European champions next month if we want to compete in this tournament next season and it is clear that we will now throw everything we have at the Heineken Cup semi-final.
“However, Munster play in the Magners League, which is not as intense as the French Championship, and, just like Leinster, they give their all for European rugby so they are both focused on that and they also have fewer games than us during a season.
“Their main goal is to win the Heineken Cup and our encounters are always huge battles involving a very intense and physical contest. They are used to these major showpiece occasions and have been crowned European champions twice, so we are certainly up against one of the top European squads.
“But there is absolutely no feeling of an inferiority complex on our part and we have beaten them in the past, even though it was five years ago.
“So, now we have the chance to meet them again and we know we can do as well as them in our quest for the Heineken Cup – the game promises to be a massive clash.”
Pre-Match Multimedia –
Current Form – Last Five Matches – Biarritz Olympique – (Top 14): Lost 19-14 away to Perpignan; Won 26-10 at home to Toulouse; Won 42-13 at home to Montauban; Lost 29-22 away to Metro Racing 92; Lost 26-19 at home to Clermont Auvergne
Munster – (Magners League): Won 23-17 at home to the Scarlets; Won 27-19 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Lost 16-15 at home to Leinster; Won 18-12 away to Connacht; Lost 15-11 at home to the Ospreys
2009/10 Heineken Cup Record – Biarritz Olympique – Pool 2: Won 22-18 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 42-15 at home to Gloucester; Won 49-13 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 26-8 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 23-8 away to Gloucester; Won 41-20 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Quarter-final: Won 29-28 at home to the Ospreys
Munster – Pool 1: Lost 31-27 away to Northampton Saints; Won 41-10 at home to Benetton Treviso; Won 24-23 at home to Perpignan; Won 37-14 away to Perpignan; Won 44-7 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 12-9 at home to Northampton Saints; Quarter-final: Won 33-19 at home to Northampton Saints
2009/10 Heineken Cup Top Scorers – Biarritz Olympique – Points: Dimitri Yachvili 83; Tries: Takudzwa Ngwenya 6; Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 96; Tries: Jean de Villiers, Doug Howlett, Paul Warwick 3 each
Previous European Meetings: 3
Saturday, May 20, 2006 – Final – Biarritz Olympique 19 Munster 23, Millennium Stadium
Sunday, April 3, 2005 – Quarter-final – Biarritz Olympique 19 Munster 10, Estadio Anoeta
Sunday, January 28, 2001 – Quarter-final – Munster 38 Biarritz Olympique 29, Thomond Park
Heineken Cup Records:
Biarritz Olympique –
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the semi-finals
2003/04: Reached the Semi Finals
2002/03: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2000/01: Reached the quarter-finals
2008/09: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Reached the semi-finals
1998/99: Reached the quarter-finals
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D