Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
They wouldn't have it any other way
This is how it’s meant to be for Munster: dispatch the tournament’s highest scorers in the quarter-final to be rewarded with facing the tournament’s second-highest scorers. And both away from home. But sometimes you get the feeling they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Paul O’Connell, totemic in his return to action at the Stoop, will need to again be at his inspirational best to take down Clermont in Montpellier. While not an easy task anywhere it’s surely made a touch less impossible by the contest not being held at Clermont’s impregnable Stade Marcel Michelin.
As an occasion it has the potential to be magnificent; Munster’s 5,000 strong (officially) Red Army travel to face the yellow and blue hordes of Clermont who, as Leinster fans will attest, have been second to none in their colour, their support for their side and their willingness to enjoy the long evening afterwards
Munster summoned a performance for the ages in their last Heineken Cup outing but even with Clermont talisman Aurelien Rougerie missing the game through injury they might need to be even better to return with the spoils from the Stade de la Mosson. Along with missing their captain the French side will also be without Gerhard Vosloo; the flanker was excellent against Montpellier winning four turnovers and linking play well with seven offloads.
Losing both Doug Howlett and Donncha O'Callaghan to injury is not trivial; O'Callaghan might not be the starting force that he once was but he remains Munster's joint leader in both tackles and forced turnovers in their seven games in the 2012/13 competition. As a force from the bench he'll be missed but, in light of what potentially could have happened had Paul O’Connell been cited after last weekend’s match at Thomond Park, it could have been worse.
Clermont’s running threat is powerful with Nalaga, Sivivatu and Fofana causing general mayhem wherever they care to roam. Those three devastating runners top the Clermont carry list (with the injured Rougerie in fourth) in contrast to the forwards that sit atop the category for the other three semi-finalists.
The scrum, so controversial at times at the Stoop, remains an issue for Munster who’ve secured just 78% of ball from their own put in. In terms of their points scoring a firm set piece platform is more important than to other teams due to their dependency on the scrum and lineout as a source of tries.
In seven rounds of Heineken Cup play there have been a total of 287 tries scored in the competition, with 57% (164) scored from possession starting from scrum or lineout. Eleven of Munster’s 14 tries have come from set piece possession, that’s a massive 79%. In contrast, Clermont have scored just 46% (13) of their 28 tries from possession beginning at their own set piece, running in tries from anything from tap penalties to kick returns to turnover ball. They can hurt you from anywhere.
Defensively-speaking the sides are well matched with both teams having conceded just four tries in their seven games and Munster’s 12 points allowed per game being as close as makes no difference to Clermont’s 11.
If it comes down to a kicking duel, after those two early misses in London Ronan O’Gara kicked a solid six from six. His rate in the competition has been 81%, the only flaw in his place-kicking being the inevitable shrinking of range as Father Time advances. In Morgan Parra, however, Munster are not facing a siege-gun boot. Like O’Gara, the playmaker’s kicking value is found in his 84% accuracy rather than prodigious distance. Clermont’s kickers as a group have shown remarkable consistency in the competition, never once dipping below 71% success rate in a game.
One thing to watch might be Nigel Owens who in this season’s competition has shown a distinct trend towards stamping his authority on the game in the opening 20 minutes of the second half followed by the reverse in the final twenty minutes. In his six games Owens has awarded 36 penalties in the 40-60 minute period with just 21 penalties from the 60th minute onwards.
Sunday’s game is seemingly a straightforward battle of bruising packs and deadly kickers, although with regard to the latter point it should be noted that Owen Farrell’s 76% and Jonny Wilkinson’s 72% are not the sort of success rates of which legends are made. Still, the England legend’s six from six against Leicester and the England (rugby league) legend son’s six from seven against Ulster have perhaps served notice that metronomic service is being resumed.
The Saracens lineout unit is a thing of rare efficiency, ticking along at a 95% success rate and destroying their opponents’ throws. Toulon’s own lineouts are also excellent but they don’t have quite the same disruptive ability on opposition ball.
Toulon are deceptively dangerous with far more strings to their bow than Saracens. Both teams have good set pieces, powerful packs and in Will Fraser and Steffon Armitage we’ll see two open-sides causing trouble for their respective opposition. They’ve also got the two kicking fly halves, as mentioned earlier. But whereas Saracens rarely unleash their undoubtedly talented back three of Goode, Ashton and Strettle the Toulon midfield is much better at bringing their outside backs into play
A small refereeing point, if you’re a person who likes a bar wager it would perhaps be worth having a punt on a high number of penalty attempts in this game. Wilkinson and Farrell both have decent boots and the confidence to have a go from anywhere; referee Alain Rolland has given plenty of scrum penalties. It’s potentially a match made in boring rugby heaven.
Saracens play a simple, effective game based on securing possession and kicking teams into submission; their average of almost 5 penalty goals per game is by some distance the highest in the competition. They don’t really bust any holes, their 7 defenders beaten per match a tournament low and not even in the same stratosphere as the rest of the semi-finalists. Of all the semi-final teams Sarries sit at the bottom of the pile in offloads, passes, carries and defenders beaten (by a huge distance) but top in kicks from hand. And yet some wonder why it’s been tough to sell tickets for Sunday.
All stats courtesy of the Amlin Opta Index
Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
A monumental ask
Here's a preview I never expected to write this season; Munster's HCup semi-final. The quarter final win away to Harlequins was epic and a huge step up for a relativityyoung team. But what awaits on Saturday in Montpelier is beyond what the English champions had to offer. Even as second favourites in London there was always a chance that a ferocious, controlled 80mins could topple Quins. Clermont, however, are on another level again. Munster will take the field the underiest of underdogs.
Reasons To Be Very Realistic
- Clermont have been the best team in the competition this season, without doubt. They're the only team with a 100% record in tact and it feels like they've been laying down markers all season, thumping Exeter and Scarlets twice each but most significantly beating Leinster in Dublin.
- Firepower is not a problem with a fearsome pack and the gamebreakers in their backline. While, Clermont's bench will have a massive impact Munster's will be extremely callow featuring the likes of Cathal Sheridan, John Ryan and Billy Holland (fine players but this is a HCup semi-final).
- Clermont missed out on the final last season by less than an inch and clearly want to win the HCup badly.
Reasons To Be Slightly Optimistic
- All the pressure is on the French. They're heavily favourited and this is the point where they went out last season.
- Their backline talisman and defensive leader, Aurelien Rougerie misses the game through injury.
- It's effectively the last game of Munster's season while Clermont are still fighting on two fronts, Munster can leave absolutely everything out on the field on Saturday.
- Munster's consistency of performance between the Quins and Leinster games was excellent, particularly the backrow. And though the six day turnaround told Thomond, Munster's front line players got last weekend off.
- Munster did an outstanding job of stifling Harlequins and applying their own pressure in the third quarter. A repeat is in order but its still difficult to imagine keeping
- Clermont tryless and Munster will need to show more in attack. Ulster and Leinster have shown the way last year, that even at home Clermont can be got at (even if only Leinster in Bordeaux manages to complete the job).
Its a monumental ask and beating Clermont in France with the current team would be one of the (if not the) greatest win in Munster's HCup history. It's impossible to back against the French but as any Munster fan will tell you, to the brave and the faithful nothing is impossible.
P.S. Don't expect a thriller between Saracens and Toulon on Sunday. Home advantage and team spirit to swing it Saracens way.
P.P.S. Leinster should have too much for Biarritz in the RDS. Jonny Sexton looked sharp in Italy last weekend and a full 80mins will copper fasten his Lions credentials.