Magners League leaders Munster are back in European action this weekend as they make their Amlin Challenge Cup bow against French side Brive. A victory here for Tony McGahan’s men would tee up a Thomond Park semi-final encounter with Harlequins.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP QUARTER-FINAL: Saturday, April 9
BRIVE v MUNSTER, Stadium Municipal, 2pm local time/1pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 1/HD1)
Team News: As expected, Mick O’Driscoll will replace the injured Paul O’Connell in the Munster team for Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final clash with Brive at the Stadium Municipal.
Mick O’Driscoll is one of three personnel changes that Munster head coach Tony McGahan has made to the team that came from behind to beat Leinster last weekend.
Denis Leamy, who was a second half replacement for Donnacha Ryan in the Leinster game, will don the number 6 jersey.
Meanwhile, Sam Tuitupou, who is off to join an English Premiership side at the end of the season, will partner his cousin Lifeimi Mafi at centre with Johne Murphy given a bench role.
The Munster starting line-up includes two European debutants – full-back Felix Jones and scrum half Conor Murray – and the match marks the province’s first outing in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Speaking ahead of the game, lock Donncha O’Callaghan said: “The Amlin Challenge Cup is not where we set out to be, there’s no point in denying that. The Heineken Cup is the most important competition for us.
“It’s every team’s goal to play in the Heineken Cup, Brive have spoken this week about how they’d love to be in it. So we’re no different.
“We have a great tradition in it that sadly ended this year but that’s done with now. The thing is, when people ask are we facing into this weekend thinking of the Heineken Cup, we’re not. And is there a hangover…there’s not. Yes, there was but we’re well past that.
“We’re getting on a plane this morning to go play European rugby. We’d be feeling fairly sore if we were all sitting at home this morning with no game this weekend.”
He added: “Brive have won the Heineken Cup also and they’re going to be as tough as you’ll get at this stage. And you only have to look at the sort of teams that are in this Amlin Challenge Cup – Clermont Auvergne, Stade Francais, Montpelier, Harlequins, Wasps.
“I mean, any of them could win the Heineken Cup. I think Brive have beaten Clermont Auvergne and Stade Francais already, so we’re under no illusions about the task we face.”
Meanwhile, Brive boss Ugo Mola has made six changes in personnel to the team that beat La Rochelle 26-9 at home in the Top 14 last weekend.
With Mathieu Belie switching from scrum half to out-half, South African Scott Spedding has been moved to full-back. Julien Caminati is the player to lose out.
There is an Anglo-French axis in midfield where Jamie Noon and Fabrice Estebanez are paired, with Argentinian international Agustin Figuerola joining Belie at half-back.
Benoit Cabello and Pablo Cardinali reinforce the front row alongside Georgia’s Davit Kinchagishvili, while Retief Uys and Julien Le Devedec have been added to the second row and back row respectively.
Uys’ South African colleagues, team captain Antonie Claassen and Gerhard Vosloo provide much of the side’s grunt up front, and will be key ball carriers.
The South African flavour continues amongst the replacements with prop Pat Barnard, formerly of Northampton Saints and London Wasps, set for some game-time, and international trio Arnaud Mela (France), Vasil Kakovin (Georgia) and Shaun Perry (England) have also been held in reserve.
Brive emerged as table toppers in Pool 2 of the Amlin Challenge Cup, reaching the quarter-finals on the back of successive wins over Petrarca Rugby, El Salvador and Sale Sharks.
Scrum half Perry, whose side are currently third-from-bottom in the French Championship, said: “French teams love playing at home and they always put a real party on. We have the trumpets and drums going and the whole town will be right behind us.
“It does sound like a cliché but support like that can act as the 16th man. It’s a big bonus to train as normal, wake up in familiar surroundings and not have to travel but we all know that this is going to be a massive, massive game.
“Munster are simply European giants. They are a huge team and we know we have got a real challenge on our hands.
“They will bring over loads of supporters as well so the atmosphere in the stadium should be perfect.
“Brive is such a small town, rugby is everything here. Shops close on matchday and the whole town has an interest in the sport and with Munster coming it is creating a real buzz around the place.”
BRIVE: Scott Spedding; Guillaume Namy, Jamie Noon, Fabrice Estebanez, Alexis Palisson; Mathieu Belie, Augustin Figuerola; Davit Kinchagishvili, Benoit Cabello, Pablo Cardinali, Thibault Dubarry, Retief Uys, Gerhard Vosloo, Antonie Claassen (capt), Julien Le Devedec.
Replacements: Jean-Philippe Bonrepaux, Vasil Kakovin, Pat Barnard, Arnaud Mela, Simon Azoulai, Fabien Domingo, Shaun Perry, Régis Lespinas.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi, Sam Tuitupou, Keith Earls; Ronan O’Gara (capt), Conor Murray; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, Tony Buckley, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll; Denis Leamy, David Wallace, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Donnacha Ryan, Niall Ronan, Peter Stringer, Paul Warwick, Johne Murphy.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle, Stuart Terheege (both England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Brive to win: 9/5; Draw: 20/1; Munster to win: 4/9
Pre-Match Quotes: Tony McGahan (Munster) – “Closer observers, those who watch their rugby, will recognise that Brive’s performances at home this year have been outstanding.
“I don’t think you get to turn over Clermont Auvergne, Stade Francais and others without having a good side and a good game that can beat those two quality outfits.
“We’re not going to be trying to counteract or go into defensive mode. It’s about what we’re going to bring to the contest on our ball and their ball.
“There are technical variations that occur from week to week, but more importantly it’s about how we’re going to attack them and what they do to stop us (not the other way around).
“It’s a cup competition, it’s got a European name and we are well focused on getting the result. It’s like anything in life – you’ve got your goal set on another level.
“Once that (Heineken Cup) was taken away from us, of our own doing, we had to refocus and that was on this competition. Nothing has changed. We want to be successful. It’s what motivates us, to be competitive and winning things.”
Fabrice Estebanez (Brive) – “Although Munster did not make it to the Heineken Cup knockout stages, they are still one of the greatest sides in Europe.
“It is both very interesting and rewarding to face such teams – though it was a bit of a surprise to find out we would play against them in the Amlin Challenge Cup – and their players will be all the more motivated to win the competition.
“As for the Brive players, we are very excited to take part in an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final against Munster and can’t wait to face them.
“It is a first for us at Brive to face Munster and it’s going to be a fantastic experience for our players who will be able to measure themselves against some of the best in Europe – and even in the world – since a lot of the Munster players play at the highest international levels for Ireland and the British & Irish Lions.
“They have great calibre players like (Ronan) O’Gara and Paul O’Connell who have so much experience of these European encounters. It’ll be tough for us but we’ve got everything to gain in that game.
“The key to beating them is simply to play a perfect game. We will have to be aggressive, because we will have very strong players in front of us, and we won’t be able to afford mistakes.
“However, we will take to the pitch without any sort of complex and give it 100% because we want to go far in this competition. Taking the game lightly is out of the question.
“It’s true that the most important thing for us is to avoid relegation in the Top 14 and that is a priority at the moment, but we always have the ambition to return to the Heineken Cup and winning the Amlin Challenge Cup would open that door for us.”
Recent Form – Brive – (Top 14 Championship): Won 26-10 at home to Stade Francais; Lost 20-12 at home to Castres Olympique; Lost 23-22 away to Toulouse; Won 50-6 at home to Bourgoin; Won 26-9 at home to La Rochelle
Munster – (Magners League): Won 23-13 at home to Edinburgh; Won 20-10 away to Aironi Rugby; Won 38-17 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 16-15 away to the Cardiff Blues; Won 24-23 at home to Leinster
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Amlin Challenge Cup/Heineken Cup: Brive – Points: Julien Caminati 97; Tries: Nicolas Jeanjean 5; Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 58; Tries: Doug Howlett 3
Previous European Meetings: 0
Amlin Challenge Cup Records:
2008/09: Reached the quarter-finals
2007/08: Reached the quarter-finals
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2005/06: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the semi-finals
2003/04: Reached the quarter-finals
2000/01: Reached the quarter-finals
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 7
1998/99: Reached the semi-finals
2010/11 is their first appearance in the tournament