The first of this weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-finals is a fascinating meeting of one of the tournament’s most successful sides, two-time winners Munster, and new pretenders to the crown, French powerhouses Clermont Auvergne. Can Paul O’Connell and his team-mates rip up the form book once again?
HEINEKEN CUP SEMI-FINAL: Saturday, April 27
CLERMONT AUVERGNE v MUNSTER, Stade de la Mosson, 6pm local time/5pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 1/HD1/RTÉ Radio 1/Newstalk/highlights TG4)
Team News: Munster head coach Rob Penney has made one change to the team that overcame Harlequins recently, bringing the fit-again Keith Earls onto the right wing for the benched Denis Hurley.
Earls has proven his fitness, coming through this week’s training regime after being sidelined since damaging his AC joint in Ireland’s final RBS 6 Nations game against Italy.
There are two changes to the Munster bench with John Ryan coming in for the injured Stephen Archer (wrist), while knee injury victim Donncha O’Callaghan makes way for Billy Holland.
It will be Earls’ first provincial outing since the pool victory at home to Racing Metro 92 in January. He injured himself in the Italy match in Rome five weeks ago.
As is normal with Heineken Cup away match weekends, extra cover will travel with the Munster squad in the form of Johne Murphy and David O’Callaghan.
This weekend’s last-four encounter will see Ronan O’Gara break yet another European record. It will be the Munster out-half’s 10th Heineken Cup semi-final appearance.
The tournament’s record points scorer (1360 points) and most-capped player (109 appearances) is hoping to be just as influential at Stade de la Mosson on Saturday evening as he was in the quarter-final win over Harlequins.
Speaking ahead of the size of the task facing Munster, Penney said: “We were talking about it the other day, if that Clermont side was to play France they would beat them, we thought, just based on the personnel.
“So we are basically playing an international team and one of highest calibre. One that would challenge at the top echelon of international footie.
“I’m brand new here (coaching in Europe). I think we’d all look at it right now and say that the toughest job of all is trying to play a French team in France of the calibre of Clermont in the form they are in. It will be massively challenging.”
The New Zealander added: “The thing about Clermont is what they do from unstructured play where you don’t have the opportunity to manufacture and build.
“They have so much firepower. If they get ball that is not controlled they can just turn up the heat really, really quickly on you and you can be left floundering.
“We won’t do it with individuals. If we get close to them it won’t be because we have had a superstar performance from one person, it will be because collectively we have operated at an efficiency level and an intensity level we have not operated with this year.”
Meanwhile, club captain Aurélien Rougerie and flanker Gerhard Vosloo will both miss Clermont’s second successive Heineken Cup semi-final appearance due to hamstring problems.
The pair sustained the injuries during last weekend’s record equalling 59th home victory in-a-row over Toulouse at the Stade Marcel Michelin, with the remainder of Rougerie’s season in doubt due to a hamstring tear.
Clermont boss Vern Cotter has made three changes in personnel to the side which saw off Toulouse on a 39-17 scoreline in the last round of the Top 14 Championship.
After some five weeks on the sidelines, Australian out-half Brock James is back to full fitness and replaces the ineligible Mike Delany.
The New Zealand-capped Regan King has been selected at outside centre, taking over from the injured Rougerie, while Vosloo’s absence in the back row is covered by Portuguese international Julien Bardy who steps up from the bench.
CLERMONT AUVERNGE: Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire (capt), Julien Bardy, Damien Chouly.
Replacements: Ti’i Paulo, Vincent Debaty, Clément Ric, Julien Pierre, Alexandre Lapandry, Ludovic Radoslavjevic, Noa Nakaitaci, Jean-Marcel Buttin.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Damien Varley, Wian du Preez, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Paddy Butler, Cathal Sheridan, Ian Keatley, Denis Hurley.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Leighton Hodges, Ian Davies (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Clermont Auvergne to win: 1/7; Draw: 33/1; Munster to win: 11/2
Pre-Match Quotes: James Downey (Munster) – “It’s great to get my hands on the ball and get involved in the game. I think I was a bit frustrated but I’m all right now and I’m happy and I can’t wait for this weekend. I think that (direct and physical style of) game suits me.
“Obviously I’ve got a lot more ball in the last while but, having held my hand up sometimes, I’ve let the games pass me by a bit. I need to get more involved and when I have got involved I think I get the team on the front foot and I’ll be looking to do that against Clermont.
“We’ll be looking to shut them down as early as we can. They’ve attacking threats all over the park and they’re not afraid to run it from their own 22 and stuff, so we’ve got to have our wits about us from the word go and we’ve got to try and stop them as early as we can.
“They’ve great balance. I think (Wesley) Fofana is the in-form midfielder this season, and he’s flying it at the moment so we’ve obviously picked him out as one to watch and I’ll be doing my best to keep him quiet.
“He has got it all, he’s the complete midfielder at the moment. You play rugby to play against the best and if he’s the best at the moment, so be it. I’m looking to do that this weekend against him. I’m excited about it.”
Vern Cotter (Clermont Auvergne) – “I don’t really look at that type of thing (bookmakers’ odds). It is not really important. We know after seeing what they did against Harlequins what Munster are capable of.
“I think Munster have looked backwards to move forwards. I think they have gone back to their DNA. It will start with their forward pack. And then it will be backed up by Ronan O’Gara, with his tactical kicking.
“They have a big centre in (James) Downey that will try and break the advantage line and they’ll play off that. They have a finisher, their X-factor player in Zebo. He is going to be a guy to obviously keep an eye on. They are a good team.
“They are a gutsy lot. They have got their leader back in Paul O’Connell. They’ve drawn the wagons around and they are ready to have a crack.”
Current Form – Clermont Auvergne – (Top 14 Championship): Won 13-6 away to Bayonne; Lost 13-8 away to Montpellier; Won 53-31 at home to Perpignan; Won 13-12 at home to Racing Metro 92; Won 14-6 away to Mont-de-Marsan; Won 44-20 at home to Grenoble; Won 28-25 at home to Stade Francais; Lost 16-13 away to Castres Olympique; (Heineken Cup): Won 49-16 at home to the Scarlets; Won 46-12 away to Exeter Chiefs; (Top 14 Championship): Won 19-12 at home to Biarritz Olympique; Won 18-11 away to Agen; Won 24-21 at home to Toulon; Lost 30-22 away to Toulouse; (Heineken Cup): Won 15-12 at home to Leinster; Won 28-21 away to Leinster; (Top 14 Championship): Won 28-24 away to Bordeaux-Begles; Won 48-3 at home to Bayonne; Won 36-18 at home to Montpellier; (Heineken Cup): Won 46-3 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Won 29-0 away to the Scarlets; (Top 14 Championship): Lost 26-19 away to Perpignan; Lost 12-6 away to Racing Metro 92; Won 56-3 at home to Mont-de-Marsan; Won 17-10 away to Grenoble; Won 37-10 away to Stade Francais; Won 37-10 at home to Castres Olympique; Lost 32-28 away to Biarritz Olympique; Won 66-21 at home to Agen; (Heineken Cup quarter-final): Won 36-14 at home to Montpellier; (Top 14 Championship): Drew 26-26 away to Toulon; Won 39-17 at home to Toulouse
Munster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 23-18 away to Edinburgh; Won 19-6 at home to Benetton Treviso; Lost 20-19 away to Ulster; Won 33-13 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 30-15 away to the Ospreys; Lost 30-21 away to Leinster; (Heineken Cup): Lost 22-17 away to Racing Metro 92; Won 33-0 at home to Edinburgh; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 29-3 at home to Zebre; Won 24-18 away to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 13-6 at home to the Scarlets; Won 31-3 at home to Glasgow Warriors; (Heineken Cup): Won 15-9 at home to Saracens; Lost 19-13 away to Saracens; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 16-12 away to Connacht; Won 24-10 at home to Ulster; Lost 17-6 at home to the Cardiff Blues; (Heineken Cup): Won 26-17 away to Edinburgh; Won 29-6 at home to Racing Metro 92; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 30-3 at home to Edinburgh; Lost 18-10 away to the Scarlets; Lost 34-10 away to Benetton Treviso; Drew 13-13 at home to the Ospreys; Won 22-0 at home to Connacht; Lost 51-24 away to Glasgow Warriors; (Heineken Cup quarter-final): Won 18-12 away to Harlequins; (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 22-16 at home to Leinster; Lost 30-24 away to Newport Gwent Dragons
Top Scorers – 2012/13 Heineken Cup: Clermont Auvergne – Points: Morgan Parra 97; Tries: Napolioni Nalaga 6; Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 62; Tries: Simon Zebo 4
Previous European Meetings: 4
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 And Figures –
– Clermont are the only semi-finalists to maintain a 100% record this season. They have won seven from seven, a club record run in this tournament
– Munster have faced French opposition on 50 occasions in this tournament, more often than any other nation. They have won 34 of those matches
– Napolioni Nalaga is the leading try scorer in the Heineken Cup this season (6) with Wesley Fofana (5) joint second on the list alongside Alex Cuthbert
– Munster have missed fewer tackles per match (7.3) than any other side in this year’s competition
– These sides have met on four previous occasions in this competition, with each side securing two wins and all four of these victories coming at home
Heineken Cup Records:
Clermont Auvergne –
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
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