Merciless Clermont ready to pounce
THE magnificent scenes at the end of the 2009/10 Top 14 final at the Stade de France carried a special significance for the victors Clermont Auvergne and not just because the victory came at the 11th time of asking.
The joyous scenes of celebration were a reminder of the bittersweet beauty of sport and its enduring appeal.
Ten times Clermont had been Top 14 finalists. Ten times they had lost.
When they finally secured the coveted Bouclier de Brennus trophy, it was a soothing balm to those hurts they had endured.
They had finally shown their capacity to deal with the outrageous slings and arrows of fickle fortune and rise triumphantly. It was a blissful moment for Clermont's supporters, players and, indeed, coaches.
Joe Schmidt left Clermont a couple of weeks later for his current post with Leinster. The New Zealand native spent three seasons as backs coach with Clermont alongside Vern Cotter. During that time, Clermont lost two Top 14 finals before the 2010 triumph.
Since leaving Clermont for Leinster, Schmidt has added two Heineken Cup titles to his list of achievements and is on course to add further baubles in the guise of the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Pro12 league.
Looking over Schmidt's achievements, it is not too fanciful to suggest he has helped change the face of the Heineken Cup – not through his successes with Leinster, though.
When Clermont won the Top 14, the game changed. No longer shackled by the lack of domestic success, Clermont have since embarked on a near manic quest to conquer Europe and win their first Heineken Cup.
Until the 2010/11 season, Europe's marquee club competition was very much of secondary importance to Clermont. That was evident in their 2007 meeting with Munster in the competition when they lost 36-15 in their first visit to Thomond Park.
There was no doubting where Clermont's priorities lay for that game when Cotter and Schmidt made 14 changes to the team that had played Toulouse in the Top 14 the previous weekend.
Victory in 2010 has seen a shift in focus for Clermont. They now hold a dual mandate every season – domestic success is dovetailed with a feverish desire to win their first Heineken Cup.
And their frustration at not achieving their goal grows every season. The manner of their loss to Leinster in last season's semi-final was gut-wrenching. They looked set for the winning score when Wesley Fofana blew the opportunity to advance to a final meeting with Ulster.
The disappointment that engulfed them has been fuel to this season's European assault and Clermont were ruthless and undefeated through their pool campaign. They were particularly merciless when carving Leinster apart at the Aviva Stadium in December and were certainly worth more than the seven-point winning margin (28-21).
Montpellier experienced Clermont's mercilessness in their quarter-final when they were blown away 36-14 in the quarter finals.
That Clermont remain just as competitive on the domestic front – they secured their semi-final berth with a 39-17 win over Toulouse on Saturday – emphasised the quality and depth of their squad. Their 59-game unbeaten record at their Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin home stadium further accentuates just how formidable an opposition they are.
Clermont are certainly among the elite in Europe. Their playing roster boasts some of the best players in Europe, highlighted by their formidable pair of French international centres, captain Aurelien Rougerie and Fofana.
Their pack is no less impressive. Nathan Hines is a Heineken Cup-winning second-row with Leinster while No 8 Julien Bonnaire won 70 caps for France before retiring from the international game after the 2012 Six Nations.
And then you come to their scrum-half... the incomparable Morgan Parra. The diminutive half-back has been in blinding form for Clermont this season, as he has been every season since joining the French league's boundary-pushing club in 2009.
If Parra is allowed to run things his way and control the game, Munster's slim chance of upsetting the odds shrink even further.
In this regard, the performance of Conor Murray against his more illustrious opponent is crucial.
Aside from his undoubted talents at the base of the scrum, Parra is a blooming nuisance. He will annoy Murray to distraction.
It is imperative Murray keeps his head even if those around him are losing theirs. He must kick cleverly, keep the Clermont back-rowers honest around the fringes and, probably most crucially of all, never get tired of doing the right things at the right times.
Clermont's back three of full-back Lee Byrne and wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga are also game-changers in their own right.
There is a belief in the Munster camp that they can upset the odds, that they have identified some weaknesses in the Clermont armour.
There is, for example, a suggestion Rougerie isn't as formidable in defence as he is in attack and by sending the human juggernaut that is James Downey down the middle, Munster will be able to make inroads.
Where Munster will attack is at out-half, which is the only real identifiable weakness in the Clermont line-up. If he is fit, Australian Brock James will start, with either David Skrela or Ludovic Radoslavjevic on the bench.
It is suggested James is mentally brittle. Munster will go after him ruthlessly in the hope of exposing this perceived weakness. If they can upset the Clermont pivot they will give themselves a chance. It's a big 'if' though.
Clermont will be coasting on a cloud of confidence this week after their clinical victory over Toulouse at the weekend.
Former All Black winger Sivivatu touched down twice while fellow Kiwi Benson Stanley and France centre Fofana also scored tries to put them above Toulon.
Toulon, who play Saracens in the other Heineken Cup semi-final, suffered a shock 25-24 defeat to Grenoble at Stade Lesdiguieres on Saturday night. They now trail Clermont by a point.
The French side didn't escape unscathed, though, and captain Rougerie was withdrawn after 25 minutes with a hamstring injury. It's unknown what his readiness will be for Saturday but it is unlikely he will miss the crucial game.
Even if Rougerie is ruled out, it is looking very much like mission impossible for Munster. For certain, they have triumphed in France against the odds in the past. This time, though, the odds of them pulling off another heroic victory are stacked against them.