George Hook: Miracles in France only happen in Lourdes
Published 27/04/2013 | 08:47
It is impossible to imagine a set of circumstances that would allow Munster to beat Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier today.
The hordes will travel from every corner of the province determined to prove that supreme optimism and undying faith can be transmitted from the terraces to drive on their heroes in red to another extraordinary feat of arms.
Never in their long and glorious history in the Heineken Cup, have Munster faced such insurmountable odds. Consider the selection of the two teams. Only Paul O' Connell and Ronan O'Gara would find a place on the opponent's team sheet. Even a revitalised O'Gara would be a marginal choice over Brock James.
The backline is filled with power, pace and talent. The midfield bristles with the silky skills of Wesley Fofana, even if the wonderfully aggressive captain Aurelien Rougerie has been ruled out. The veteran French international centre tore a thigh muscle in last week's Top 14 victory over Toulouse. The French team had the option of two All Blacks to replace him and have gone for Regan King.
On the wings, the ferocious Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga, are backed up by Lee Byrne at full-back. That entire armoury is controlled by Morgan Parra, the best scrum-half in Europe.
The pack is strong to the point of disbelief. The front-row promises Munster a tough ride in the scrum, with the ferocious front three of Davit Zirakashvili, Benjamin Kayser and Thomas Domingo. Behind them, the veterans Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore are strong line-out performers. The Scotsman, on a weekly basis, underlines why his departure from Leinster was hard to understand.
Even Rob Penney is impressed by the strength of the team. This week he said that Clermont "would beat France," an astonishing comment on the eve of the contest. No doubt, the Munster coach was mindful of Vern Cotter, his opposite number, who remarked that he intended to "run Munster ragged."
A few weeks ago, when Conor O'Shea imagined that he would be involved in the semi-final weekend, he criticised the format of the competition that pitted the top qualifier against bottom in the quarter-finals, but made no such distinction in the penultimate round. The Irishman knew the scale of the challenge he was likely to face in France.
Harlequins were beaten playing below their best by a Munster team playing above all known form. It rivalled some of their greatest performances, but one always had hopes that the soft under-belly of an upper-class English club might just buckle under the raw aggression of a province honed on countless bloody battles in the Munster Senior Cup.
The travelling media have followed their 'fans with typewriters' image by suggesting there is a way that Munster can win. One analyst has gone so far as to suggest that victory can be achieved by turning Clermont strengths into weaknesses. It certainly makes a good headline, but how to do it is the question?
However, this is sport and, in the words of famous Munster player of yore: "if you played Clermont 10 times, they would beat you 99 times out of a hundred!" Therein lies the only weakness in this magnificent club side. Munster must win the battle of mind rather than matter.
Clermont, despite an astonishing home record, will remember Leinster last year; they will be aware how many times they have been bridesmaids in European and domestic competitions; and above all they will fear the history of Munster who have done what they so far have failed to do.
Munster must score first and lead to half-time. Doubt must be put in the minds of players that need a European victory to seal their reputations. That is an enormous task. It defies logic that the visitors, with a weak bench, could win this match in the last 20 minutes. The plan must be to get in front and hang on.
Munster have one other advantage. They are now playing to a plan that they understand. Generations of players in red jerseys beat better teams because they displayed courage to a superhuman level.
In that regard, I am certain O'Gara is ready. However I am worried about O'Connell. The big man would not be human were he not bothered by the comments of the last two weeks. To remain completely focused will have been well-nigh impossible. Hopefully, today will provide redemption.
The bookmakers have deemed Clermont to be 12 points better than Munster. That makes the visitors unbackable in betting terms. Only the faithful believe in an upset. However, maybe Brother Athanasius, my old Latin teacher at Pres Cork, had it right when he said to me: "Hookie, we do not need to know, we believe."
The Presentation Brother has gone to his just reward, but even he might think that this match is one too far.