A look at this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final fixture at Stade de la Mosson.
Two-time Heineken Cup winners Munster face a daunting trip to Montpellier on Saturday as they face a rampant Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals of the premier Northern Hemisphere club competition.
The 2006 and 2008 champions have battled against the odds to reach this stage after defeating English Premiership holders Harlequins in the last round away from home, but they will have to step up a gear if they are to progress to their fifth final in the competition.
For Clermont, the Top 14 leaders head into the tie as favourites for this year’s trophy, but they will remember the pain of defeat when they were beaten at the same stage last year by their opponent’s fierce rivals Leinster, who went on to win the final against Ulster.
They head into the game though on the back of a resounding 39-17 demolition of the Top 14 reigning champions Toulouse, and a side that saw many key players rested drew 26-26 with Toulon the week before.
The French side have recalled fly-half Brock James following his recovery from a thigh injury that kept him out of the quarter-final victory over Montpellier. However, they will be without captain Aurelien Rougerie due to a hamstring injury, so former Scarlets centre Regan King deputises at outside centre.
The Yellow and Blues will also be without influential flanker Gerhard Vosloo, who also has a hamstring injury. The South African back-row was outstanding in the quarter-final clash, and his presence will be missed not just at the breakdown, but his ability to offload in open-play to unleash the lethal backline they possess with Wesley Fofana and Sitiveni Sivivatu both set to feature.
The former New Zealand wing scored a 60m solo effort against Montpellier as well as setting-up a try for Rougerie, and he will threaten the Munster defence from all over the park, especially playing off the shoulder of both James and Fofana.
The Irish province make just one change to the side that defeated Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop, with the fit-again Keith Earls returning to replace Denis Hurley, who drops to the bench. Earls has not played for Munster since the Heineken Cup pool game against Racing Metro back in January, and he limped out of Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Italy in March.
They remain without their own All Black winger in Doug Howlett, who is still sidelined with a shoulder injury, and second-row Donncha O’Callaghan has failed to recover from a knee injury suffered in the match against Leinster a fortnight ago. Billy Holland replaces O’Callaghan on the bench while prop Stephen Archer – who may miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury – is replaced by John Ryan as a replacement.
The Red Army will be led out by talismanic lock Paul O’Connell, and the intensity of the clash had already been increased with the French side questioning whether O’Connell should be playing at all. O’Connell caught Leinster wing David Kearney with a boot to the head when he attempted to kick the ball, an incident that left Kearney needing hospital treatment overnight.
However, O’Connell was cleared of any wrongdoing, leading Clermont stand-in captain Julien Bonnaire to say: “I have the impression that not all of us are judged by the same standards. There are some players who would have received 10 weeks’ suspension for the same offence”.
O’Connell’s teammate Ronan O’Gara will be making his 110th appearance in the Heineken Cup, and a staggering 10th semi-final when he walks out on Saturday afternoon. O’Gara, who has come in for some criticism this year which saw him dropped from the Ireland squad in the Six Nations, was instrumental in the quarter-final victory, and he will need to take every point on offer if Munster are to grind out what could be their greatest ever European triumph should they knock-off the French giants.
Clermont Auvergne: Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili; Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines; Julien Bonnaire, Julien Bardy, Damien Chouly.
Replacements: Ti’i Paulo, Vincent Debaty, Clement Ric, Julien Pierre, Alexandre Lapandry, Ludovic Radosavljevic, Jean-Marcellin Buttin, Noa Nakaitaci.
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; Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Damien Varley, Wian du Preez, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Patrick Butler, Cathal Sheridan, Ian Keatley, Denis Hurley.
Live coverage of Clermont Auvergne v Munster on Sky Sports 1 at 5pm.