Pool 1 pacesetters Munster collide with fellow European heavyweights Clermont Auvergne in a much-anticipated Thomond Park clash, with some precious Champions Cup points on the line.
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP POOL 1: Saturday, December 6
MUNSTER (1st) v CLERMONT AUVERGNE (2nd), Thomond Park, 5.30pm (live Sky Sports 2 HD/RTÉ Radio 1/highlights TG4)
Team News: Munster head coach Anthony Foley has named his team to face Clermont Auvergne in round 3 of the European Champions Cup at a sold-out Thomond Park on Saturday.
The province’s international contingent return to the starting line-up with Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell, captain Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo included for the first time since the Saracens encounter in round 2.
The sevens changes from last weekend’s squad also see Tommy O’Donnell and Felix Jones given starting berths this week.
Anthony Foley keeps faith with the same front row of Dave Kilcoyne, hooker Duncan Casey and BJ Botha, and O’Connell and recent Ireland cap Foley complete the front five.
CJ Stander retains his place at number 8 and is joined by O’Mahony and O’Donnell in a combative back row unit.
The returning Murray and Ian Keatley renew their half-back pairing, while South African centre Pat Howard makes his first European appearance for the province, starting alongside Denis Hurley for just the second time.
With Zebo returning out wide, the in-form Gerhard van den Heever makes a switch to the opposite right wing as Jones completes the back-three.
Replacement hooker Kevin O’Byrne is named in his first European squad, while prop James Cronin is included after successfully rehabbing an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, French giants Clermont Auvergne have made three changes to the team that started their 35-3 bonus point victory over Sale Sharks in round 2.
Club legend Aurélien Rougerie returns at outside centre in place of Wales international Jonathan Davies, who drops back to the bench. That means Munster’s Howard-Hurley midfield axis will have to quell the influence of Rougerie and Wesley Fofana.
Alexandre Lapandry also makes way, with Damien Chouly coming in to captain the visitors from blindside flanker and Julien Bonnaire moves to openside.
The final switch for Clermont, who are currently second in the Top 14, sees young French international Sébastien Vahaamahina pair up with Canada’s Jamie Cudmore in the second row.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Gerhard van den Heever, Pat Howard, Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Paul O’Connell, Dave Foley, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Sean Dougall, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Johne Murphy.
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Nick Abendanon; Noa Nakaitaci, Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga; Camille Lopez, Ludovic Radoslavjevic; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Clément Ric, Jamie Cudmore, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Damien Chouly (capt), Julien Bonnaire, Fritz Lee.
Replacements: John Ulugia, Vincent Debaty, Davit Zirakashvili, Julien Pierre, Alexandre Lapandry, Thierry Lacrampe, Brock James, Jonathan Davies.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Greg Garner, Paul Dix (both England)
Television Match Official: Rowan Kitt (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 4/9; Draw: 20/1; Clermont Auvergne to win: 7/4
Pre-Match Quotes: Peter O’Mahony (Munster) – “These are the days you want to be involved in, the biggest days in a club jersey. Fingers crossed it will be a great occasion.
“Clermont are a hugely competitive side, just look at their performances in the French Top 14 in the last few months.
“Even when they’re not going well, they’ve got guys in the team who can punish you from any part of the pitch and when they’re going forward they are a very tough side to stop. We’ll have to be on our game at the weekend.
“It just doesn’t get any bigger, European-wise it’s nearly on a par with an international game. It’s going be hugely intense, in fact it’s never anything but when we play each other, always fiery with both teams not wanting to give an inch.”
Simon Zebo (Munster) – “These are two absolutely massive games. I am sure after the back-to-back games we will get a real fair picture of who is in the driving seat, and we want that to be us.
“We know that we are going to need to put in two massive performances to be where we want to be in the table come Christmas.
“Everybody is really excited about the challenge we have ahead and we are just going to have to play our best rugby to get the points.
“After a slow start (to the season) we are getting a bit of momentum slowly but surely. We are grinding out wins and we are putting in performances.”
Current Form – Munster – (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 14-13 at home to Edinburgh; Won 21-10 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 31-5 at home to Zebre; Lost 19-14 at home to the Ospreys; Won 34-23 away to Leinster; Won 17-6 at home to the Scarlets; (European Champions Cup): Won 27-26 away to Sale Sharks; Won 14-3 at home to Saracens; (GUINNESS PRO12): Won 28-24 away to Cardiff Blues; Won 38-12 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 21-20 at home to Ulster
Clermont Auvergne – (Top 14 Championship): Won 30-26 at home to Grenoble; Lost 21-6 away to Brive; Won 21-20 at home to Montpellier; Won 32-6 at home to Racing Metro 92; Lost 13-9 away to Toulouse; Won 43-12 at home to Lyon; Lost 19-8 away to Oyonnax; Lost 51-21 away to Bordeaux-Bègles; Won 30-10 at home to La Rochelle; (European Champions Cup): Lost 30-23 away to Saracens; Won 35-3 at home to Sale Sharks; (Top 14 Championship): Lost 24-13 away to Bayonne; Won 51-9 at home to Stade Francais; Lost 27-19 away to Toulon
Top Scorers – 2014/15 European Champions Cup: Munster – Points: Ian Keatley 21; Tries: Dave Kilcoyne 2; Clermont Auvergne – Points: Camille Lopez 28; Tries: Zac Guildford, Napolioni Nalaga 2 each
Previous European Meetings: 5
Saturday, April 27, 2013 – Semi-final – Clermont Auvergne 16 Munster 10, Stade de la Mosson
Saturday, December 13, 2008 – Pool 1 – Munster 23 Clermont Auvergne 13, Thomond Park
Sunday, December 7, 2008 – Pool 1 – Clermont Auvergne 25 Munster 19, Stade Marcel Michelin
Sunday, January 13, 2008 – Pool 5 – Clermont Auvergne 26 Munster 19, Stade Marcel Michelin
Sunday, November 18, 2007 – Pool 5 – Munster 36 Clermont Auvergne 13, Thomond Park
Match Facts –
– Clermont Auvergne are one of just four teams in Champions Cup and Heineken Cup history to have a winning record over Munster (W3, L2)
– Munster could record their 100th victory in Europe’s top tier if they win on Saturday
– This fixture has been won by the home side on all four occasions, with Clermont also winning the 2013 semi-final meeting at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier
– Clermont’s Nick Abendanon has gained more metres (222) and beaten more defenders (11) than any other player in the competition this season
European Cup Records:
2013/14: Reached the semi-finals
2012/13: Reached the semi-finals
2011/12: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2009/10: Reached the semi-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
Clermont Auvergne –
2013/14: Reached the semi-finals
2011/12: Reached the semi-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2009/10: Reached the quarter-finals
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2001/02: Reached the quarter-finals
1999/00: Reached the quarter-finals