Munster have a huge task on their hands as they face tournament favourites Clermont in Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final in France.
Munster have a huge task on their hands as they face tournament favourites Clermont in Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier.
It's been a season of contrasting fortunes for the Irish giants. Unable to qualify for the Pro12 play-offs, the Heineken Cup now represents their chance to salvage a season marked by inconsistency.
The move to a new, more expansive style in Rob Penney's first season as head coach has been a bumpy ride and on more than one occasion it's been the old-school physical Munster approach that has come to the Red Army's rescue – best illustrated by Paul O'Connell barnstorming return to European action in the quarter-final win over Harlequins.
Indeed, the Munster skipper has been the centre of attention in the build up to the clash on the Mediterranean coast as “l'affaire O'Connell” has dominated column inches and public debates both in Ireland and France.
The fact that POC will be playing this weekend – despite leaving Dave Kearney with an almighty headache – is massively significant. Munster were a transformed side as he led the charge against Quins and many would suggest the two-time champs wouldn't stand much of a chance against the rampant Jaunards without him.
The significance certainly hasn't been lost on the Clermont staff, and manager Jean-Marc Lhermet felt in necessary to stick a finger in an old French wound when mentioning the saga as he commented on the ERC's decision to deny their request to get fly-half Michael Delany registered. It's not the first time a French side have felt they've been given a raw deal by the organisation based in Dublin…and probably not the last.
While Munster's most iconic player will take the field, his equivalent in Clermont – Aurelien Rougerie – will not. A thigh injury has robbed Clermont of their skipper and one of the most dangerous 13s in Europe. The loss of openside flank Gerhard Vosloo, who was phenomenal in the quarter-final thrashing on Montpellier, is almost as big a blow for the Top 14 leaders.
But Clermont – the only semi-finalists to maintain a 100 percent record this season – will nevertheless start as heavy favourites.
Munster are appearing in a record-equalling tenth Heineken Cup semi-final while Clermont's loss to Leinster in Bordeaux last year was their only previous appearance in the last four, but the French team's form in recent week's – which includes a draw away to Toulon and a big win over Toulouse – can't be overlooked.
Clermont also boast the competition's leading points and try scorers in Morgan Parra (97 points) and Napolioni Nalaga (six tries) – not to mention Wesley Fofana, joint second top try scorer on five.
O'Connell and Penney have both insisted that their team will thrive on the underdog tag in the same way they did at the Stoop, so don't expect one-way traffic. Munster have missed fewer tackles per match (7.3) than any other side in this year's competition and they will once again look to shut down Clermont's free-running backs.
Munster have faced French opposition on 50 occasions in this tournament, more often than any other nation. They have won 34 of those matches.
Munster have made just one change to the starting line-up that ran out in the quarter-final win over Harlequins. A fit again Keith Earls comes onto the right wing in place of Denis Hurley, who is named on the bench. It's Earls first outing for Munster since the Racing Metro game in January and his first competitive match since the Test against Italy five weeks ago.
There are two changes to that bench with John Ryan in for the injured Stephen Archer (wrist) while Donncha O'Callaghan's knee injury sustained against Leinster rules him out, his place going to Billy Holland.
Meanwhile, there are three changes to the Clermont side that ran four tries past Toulouse last week. Brock James returns at fly-half to start his first game in over a month in the place of ineligible Delany.
One-cap All Black Regan King takes over from Rougerie while Julien Bardy comes off the bench to fill in for Vosloo. Replacement fly-half David Skrela is still doubtful and has been bracketed on the bench with Fijian flyer Noa Nakaitaci.
Players to watch:
For Clermont: Former All Black speedster Sitiveni Sivivatu is as dangerous as he has ever been, as illustrated by his two tries against Toulouse last week. His counter-attacking skills fit in perfectly with Clermont's philosophy of striking from deep. Give him space at your peril.
For Munster: If Munster want to outmuscle Clermont the way they bullied Quins, Peter O'Mahony needs to produce another strongman performance. If the Irishmen can disrupt the Clermont line-out and slow down their ball, they have a real chance at playing in the final in Dublin.
Head-to-head: The battle of the second rows has been given plenty of ink in the build up. Paul O'Connell's influence has been mentioned above. Another veteran, Nathan Hines, who who has featured in 14 out of a possible 15 tournament matches for Clermont, is no stranger to the Irishmen after his time at Leinster. Jamie Cudmore's panache for the rough stuff is well documented and Donnacha Ryan won't shy away from tussle either. It could get brutal.
Prediction: These sides have met on four previous occasions in this competition, with each side securing two wins and all four of these wins coming as home victories. “Home country” advantage will definitely play into the Clermont's hands with a massive contingent of Ultras Vulcans set to make a lot of noise. Clermont by ten points.
Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Regan King, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clement Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Jean Marcel Buttin, 23 Noa Nakaitaci or David Skrela.
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 , 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Mike Sherry, 1 David Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 John Ryan, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Cathal Sheridan, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Denis Hurley.
Date: Saturday 27th April
Venue: Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier
Kick-off: 18:00 (17.00 BST, 16.00 GMT)
Weather: 15Â° C. Light morning rain but clearing by kick-off.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ian Davies (Wales)