by Brendan Cole
The conventional wisdom is that Munster will need everything to go their way if they are to pull off the seemingly impossible against Clermont and it’s not hard to see why.
At their best, Clermont are a French juggernaut in the old style: powerful ball carriers, booming kickers and a monstrous set piece.
The gloss on that classic model is their bevy of talented steppers, with budding superstar Wesley Fofana chief among them.
The formula is working particularly well just now. Clermont lead a Top 14 that is stuffed full of expensively acquired foreign talent and would likely be the favourite in a head-to-head to clash with any team in Europe at present. Ominously for Munster, they have made Europe a top priority this season.
Clermont have made a habit of doing things the hard way both in Europe and at home. Their track record of slip-ups in big knockout games is extensive with three French league final defeats and two Heineken Cup home semi-final muggings on the charge sheet in recent seasons.
From a host of glorious opportunities at both European and domestic level, they have managed just one French title and have not reached a French or European final since their sole Top 14 victory in 2010.
The big question is whether Munster have it in them to even begin exposing any vulnerabilities Clermont might have.
The men in red have made changes to their style in recent weeks, with a renewed emphasis on simple, confrontational ball-carrying through the pack. That has, or so the theory goes, suited the Munster mentality and it certainly caught Harlequins by surprise in the quarter-final.
Munster’s awesome record in cup competition also makes them a dangerous opponent for a team like Clermont, who can sometimes seem more comfortable bullying weaker opposition in league matches than in white hot cup encounters.
Unlike the weaker French sides, it is open to Munster to tear into Clermont in a way clubs which play them twice a season might be reluctant to do. And if they are to cause an upset, getting among Clermont with tempo, commitment and physicality and thriving on it themselves is something Munster simply must do.
Despite their faltering League campaign, Munster must also recognise that they have a strong XV themselves - exceptionally so in some areas. In the tight five, the presence of Paul O’Connell and his ability to set a standard for others to aim for is a huge boost, albeit a controversial one.
Munster must believe in their own XV
Munster also have a World Cup winning tighthead in the shape of BJ Botha and at six feet tall, he ought not be overly put out by the challenge of playing the 5'8 Thomas Domingo. Vincent Debaty might have caused more trouble.
Munster also have huge physicality in the heart of their backline defence, with James Downey and Casey Laulala’s smash tackling giving them the capacity to shift the momentum in a single play; something that is increasingly difficult in the modern game and particularly so against structured and relatively conservative attacking.
And despite the French reputation for flair and the presence of brilliant steppers in Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napoleoni Nalaga, Munster can expect plenty of structure. The Clermont model usually depends on dominance up front with those steppers only coming into play on the back of proper structure.
The ability of Regan King to glide into the most dangerous channels and draw defenders to him before releasing others, Byrne's timing coming into the line and Morgan Parra's efficiency at nine also make Clermont formidable as an attacking force.
But it is based on the pack. As starting full-back Lee Byrne said this week: "Standing back and watching our forwards having a rumble is quite intimidating. I just let them carry on and applaud it at the back.”
That attitude may just be the small mental weakness that Munster can exploit. What will the response be through the team if the mighty Clermont pack takes a backward step? Munster simply must find out if they are to have a chance. If they can, the likes of Butch James, playing at out-half with injury worry David Skrela struggling to make the bench, have shown enough mental frailty in the past to give Munster hope.
Munster must not forget their own attacking weapons either. From the speed and x-factor of Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, to Laulala’s offloads and Downey’s direct carries, they can pose problems. They will need the passes to stick, Ronan O’Gara to get his depth and decision making absolutely right and Conor Murray operating at top speed. But there is danger there for Clermont if it comes together.
The reversion to a simpler style also means Munster must also get a classic performance from their back-row. Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and James Coughlan simply must get on top of their opposites. The likes of Quinlan, Wallace, Foley and Leamy carved their names into Munster legend in contests just like this.
The loss of Howlett, Donncha O’Callaghan and Stephen Archer is unfortunate and weakens the squad, but it is simply frustrating to see Munster line up without their hugely talented import CJ Stander in the 23.
The former Junior Springbok captain has had limited game-time since arriving but would have brought valuable speed and athleticism, and an apprarent nose for the tryline, even off the bench. At this stage, as it did at the time, registering him looks like it would have been a risk worth taking.
The hosts have injury absentees of their own with Skrela a doubt due to Achilles tendon trouble, and their own South African import back-rower and spiritual leader Aurelien Rougerie missing out, both with hamstring problems.
The reality is that even if with every player available, Munster would have it all to do. Though this match takes place at a different ground (Stade de la Mosson), Clermont’s incredible record of 59 wins in-a-row at Stade Marcel Michelin shows just how tough to beat they are on home territory.
Munster have a sliver of a chance, and Clermont can expect a mighty battle for at least the first hour. The hope is that Munster prove the doubters wrong again, but the evidence says Clermont will power through the inevitable rough patches.
Heineken Cup Prediction:
Clermont 28-15 Munster
ASM Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King, W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, Mn Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire (c), J Bardy, D Chouly. Replacements : T Paulo, V Debaty, C Ric, J Pierre, A Lapandry, L Radosavljevic, J-M Buttin, S Nakaitaci OR D Skrela
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O’Connell capt; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Varley, W du Preez, J Ryan, B Holland, P Butler, C Sheridan, I Keatley, D Hurley