Clermont Auvergne vs Munster
Once upon a time, Irish provinces playing away games in France tended to be beaten before they even started. Then Munster beat Colomiers in 1999 and gradually, thanks to a string of victories by the men in Red, then Leinster, then Ulster, the myth and legend surrounding French sides at home began to be stripped away and Irish sides were able to travel without carrying an unbearable weight of fear.
Even last year, Leinster went to France and beat the mighty Clermont in Bordeaux, which in theory should encourage Munster this week. Yet for all that, it’s impossible to find anyone willing to say a positive word about the chances of the men in red this weekend. Clermont are just perceived as too good, while Munster’s one-off win over Harlequins has been dismissed as just one good day for the men in red, a blip in a graph that has maintained an otherwise consistent downward trajectory.
While this column of Heineken Cup semi final previews would love nothing more than to take the “hipster” view and declare that despite the prognostication of all other scribes, 7/1 about a win for Munster is good value – we simply can’t do it. There just is too much quality in this Clermont Auvergne team, too much hunger, too much evidence to say that they will be outclassed.
If we look at the month of April as a whole, we get some impression of the standard of play that Clermont are currently maintaining on a weekly basis. After their Heineken Cup quarter-final win at home to Montpellier, they travelled to the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles to take on top of the table rivals Toulon, before entertaining a perennially competitive Toulouse team at the Stade Marcel Michelin last Saturday. Les Jaunards passed this ridiculously difficult test with flying colours and now they can prepare for Saturday’s semi-final on the back of a five-game unbeaten run, with Vern Cotter content that fatigue is no issue since he has used 40 different players in that five-match sequence.
Munster’s backs-to-the-wall effort against Harlequins was admirable on many levels, but English club rugby is not competitive relative to the French domestic game, and neither were Quins at the top of their form. The eleven point spread will in all likelihood be covered here.
Saracens vs Toulon
Both these sides come into this contest on the back of domestic defeats and while neither team is worried about making their domestic finals, it’s still far from ideal to have your players suffer a confidence blow in advance of a critical Heineken Cup semi final. Toulon fell to a shock 25-24 loss at Grenoble on Saturday, while Saracens were competitive but still a little bit weak defensively in their 28-23 reverse against Gloucester at Kingsholm.
Away fixtures against Gloucester are never easy to handle and on the face of it, Sarries’ defeat was by far the more forgivable of the two. Toulon actually threw away an eighteen point lead in their game against Grenoble and while the home side were by far the more motivated at the tail end of what has been a dream first season in the top flight for them, it’s notable that Clermont, their rivals for the French title, rarely show such disinterest in key domestic fixtures.
We were quick to dismiss the general standard of Premiership rugby in the previous post, however Saracens have been an exception to that rule as their style of play is made to grind out results against any opponent. They were excellent in the group stages, they could easily have beaten Ulster by a much bigger margin than the final eleven point gap, and above all they have the defensive solidity to shut down the flamboyant Toulon backline. Granted Johnny May punched a few holes in their backline at the weekend, but at Twickenham they’ll expect to show a lot more strength and line breaks should be very hard to come by.
Of course Toulon are one of those teams that are happy to take on their opponents on any terms – Jonny Wilkinson will certainly be well able to convert any penalty chances that come up, while the news that Rocky Elsom and Danie Rossouw have been given places in their travelling squad for Sunday’s game is another boost for the visitors.
The bookies are struggling to call this one and most give the edge to the visitors by the narrowest of margins, offering the game off either a scratch or a one point handicap. We’d probably lean the other way, but by an equally small margin – and certainly not enough to compensate for the bookies’ over-round. This could be a good one to leave aside and stick to a watching brief.
2pts, Clermont (-11pts) to beat Munster @ 10/11 (Sportingbet, 888sport, Hills)