Tony Ward: Nothing is impossible but hard to look past Clermont
Published 27/04/2013 | 08:47
Following this week's Champions' League semi- finals, the first ever all-German final at Wembley appears now to be set in stone. Cristiano Ronaldo's first-half goal gives Real Madrid a glimmer of hope, but, realistically, nothing more.
Both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have been form teams throughout this season's tournament and, despite the pedigree of the Spanish opposition, they have delivered.
In rugby's equivalent competition there has been something of a changing of the guard, with Clermont Auvergne and Toulon moving ahead of Toulouse as the Top 14 standard-bearers. For Bayern and Dortmund read Clermont and Toulon – and probably in that order.
Can Saracens, with home advantage – albeit at a sparsely populated Twickenham – and Munster, on the road in France, upset the form book and odds? Of course they can. Will they? I fear not.
What Munster achieved in the Stoop and the substance to that unexpected victory has given us all hope, but when compared to the resources and strength in depth at both French clubs, and, indeed, at Saracens, it is a battle against the odds.
Should the French prevail, it would make for the fourth all-Gallic final – following Toulouse v Perpignan in Dublin in 2003, Toulouse v Stade Francais in Edinburgh in 2005 and most recently Toulouse (yet again) v Biarritz in Paris in 2010.
That '03 final carries particularly bad memories for Irish rugby as, despite the Lansdowne stage being set for an all-Irish final, Munster lost by a point (13-12) in Le Stadium – though, in truth, they were hammered everywhere bar the scoreboard when Toulouse unleashed their bench in the final quarter.
Lest we forget how badly resourced the Irish sides were when compared to the French aristocrats then try these for the respective replacement line-ups.
Whereas Toulouse unloaded seven full internationals, in Benoit Lecouls, William Servat, Gregory Lamboley, Finau Maka, Jean Baptiste Elissalde, Yannick Jauzion and Cedric Heymans Munster countered with James Blaney, Simon Kerr, Denis Leamy, Mick O'Driscoll, Dominic Malone, Jason Holland and Dominic Crotty.
It was, to all intents and purposes, men against boys and I don't make that comment in any disparaging way other than to emphasise the huge gulf in class between the then 'haves' and 'have nots' of European rugby.
True to form and tradition, Munster gave it their best shot, but the scoreline masked a multitude.
Then, to rub salt into the wounds, Perpignan repeated the dose over Matt Williams' Leinster in Dublin the following day, thereby setting up the all-French Lansdowne Road final no one, least of all ERC, wanted.
For Munster to make it through to the Aviva on May 18 would represent the stuff of dreams.
The business end of the draw has seldom been kind and this year again is no exception. To beat Harlequins, the No 1 seeds, on their home patch and then have to travel to play what is, in my view, the most complete team in the competition on French soil is just not fair.
But that is why Munster are what they are and why you never write them off. With the two main men, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell, in situ nothing is impossible.
That said, I cannot for the life of me see where Clermont are weak. They are the real deal and arguably the top club or provincial team below international level at this time. Money talks and Vern Cotter has certainly invested well.
Obviously, he will be keeping mum, with his own battle to be fought at the RDS this afternoon, but I suspect the dynamic duo of Joe Schmidt and Cotter will have been exchanging dossiers and relevant information on Munster and Biarritz ahead of today's games!
And, having blown it in '03 when the semi-finals and final of the premier event were set for Dublin, it is doubtful if, under the soon-to-depart Schmidt, the three-time Heineken Cup winners will miss this opportunity to add the Amlin Challenge trophy on their home ground now.
Win the shadow trophy and Connacht (under Pat Lam) come in on Leinster's coat tails once again. That aspiration, we suspect, will still be alive by the time Munster kick off in Montpellier later this afternoon.
Neither Munster nor Leinster have enjoyed the luxury of a home Heineken Cup final to date.
It would make for the most incredible European finals weekend were everybody's second favourite team to succeed against all the odds now.
A Munster win and even 'The Gathering' will pale into insignificance should the red army get that opportunity to assemble in Dublin next month.
Please God, may we be enjoying dollops of humble pie, but we take Clermont and Toulon to insure a French invasion of Dublin parallel to the Germans landing in London for the football. Take Leinster to win, Munster to perform but power and panache in abundance to see Clermont through.