Irish provinces approach Champions Cup semi-finals as underdogs
by Phil Rice
Munster and Leinster have five European Cup wins between them and face opponents who have just one win to show for their efforts, but still the bookies have Saracens and Clermont Auvergne as favourites to meet in the final.
In recent years Clermont have been ever-present at the latter stages of the competition but have always fallen at the final or semi final stage.
A number of their better players are reaching the end of their illustrious careers and they probably feel there won’t be many further opportunities to reach the pinnacle of their club’s ambitions. Players such as Aurelien Rougerie, Morgan Parra, Nick Abendanon, Thomas Domingo, Damien Chouly and Vincent Debaty, probably realise that their best playing days are now behind them and don’t want to be the bridesmaid yet again this year. This may be their last opportunity to lift European silverware.
Leinster on the other hand have a relatively young team with only Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner, aged over 30. With Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip both unavailable through injury, the team has a very youthful look about it. But so far the youngsters have exceeded all expectations and currently sit atop of the Pro12 league.
With a very understrength team they comfortably beat league champions Connacht who were at full strength at the weekend.
Leo Cullen faces a few difficult decisions when it comes to team selection for this weeks game. After the outstanding performance by his backrow against Wasps in the quarter-final it would be harsh not to pick them en bloc again. However Rhys Ruddock captain, and Josh van der Flier man of the match, were both immense at the weekend. It will be very tough to leave one of them out of the match day squad.
Sean Cronin is likely to return at hooker in place of Richardt Strauss, whose throwing in at the line-out left something to be desired against Wasps.
It will be vital to take every scoring opportunity this week, a couple of 5-metre line-outs were squandered in the quarter-final due to inaccuracy of throwing.
Sexton will be key for Leinster, he completely out-played Camille Lopez in the Six Nations match earlier this year, despite receiving some close attention from the French loose forwards. The Leinster fly-half is used to receiving rough treatment, particularly against French opposition, but he seems to relish the challenge and Leinster will be hoping that he maintains the sort of form that has made him a ’shoe-in’ for the Lions test team this summer.
His partner Luke McGrath is probably the most improved player in Irish rugby this season. His passing has improved as well as his eye for a break, but it is his tireless defence which has come to his teams rescue on countless occasions that has made him such a valuable player.
Sunday’s game will be attritional and the accuracy of Parra’s and Sexton’s place-kicking may well decide the outcome. Clermont will have home country advantage and their fanatical support may just tip the balance in their favour in what is likely to be a very close contest.
Munster will have home country advantage when they take the field at a packed and partisan Aviva this Saturday. Wasps brought a big support with them for the quarter-final but were drowned-out by the Leinster supporters. Saracens too will bring a large contingent but Munster’s renowned fans will bring their special atmosphere which has become even more emotional and compelling since the untimely death of Coach ‘Axel’ Foley.
The Munster team have been lifted to exceptional performances this season by their fans. Anyone who attended their European match against Glasgow Warriors will never forget the impact the fans had that day. Saturday promises to be another memorable and emotional day.
Saracens are the current holders of the Champions Cup and they have a formidable squad. Half a dozen of their players have been included in Warren Gatland’s first test squad against the All Blacks in June. The Vunipola brothers bring a very physical presence while Maro Itoje and George Kruis form an awesome second-row.
Owen Farrell provides an exceptional kicking success ratio and Munster will do well to minimise the penalties they concede in their own half.
Wingers Chris Ashton and Sean Maitland are expert finishers and the Munster defence will need to close down their dangerous back division and prevent them from giving their wingers any room.
Since Foley’s much-lamented and emotional loss, Munster have played as if driven by destiny. They have been on a mission to fulfil all the ambitions that “Axel” had for his beloved province.
Rory Scannell and Dave Sweetnam were injured in their close victory Ulster at the weekend, but they are fortunate to have recently-capped Andrew Conway and Jaco Taute to replace them. There are doubts surrounding their key players Conor Murray, who is still recovering from the shoulder injury sustained in Cardiff against Wales, and CJ Stander, who was injured in the quarter-final win over Toulouse. It will be vital that they play a full part this week.
Munster will be carried on a wave of emotion by their fanatical supporters and it will be no surprise if they are lifted to unprecedented heights. They will probably need to exceed the level of performance that brought such success in their halcyon days of 2006 & 8.