Sunday 15 December 2019

Munster will be driven by fear in huge European games

Big game hunters get ready

Duncan Williams scores Munster's second try on Friday night despite the best efforts of Ulster's Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Duncan Williams scores Munster's second try on Friday night despite the best efforts of Ulster's Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On Saturday next at 5.30pm in Thomond Park, the biggest game of the three rounds of the European Champions Cup will get under way.

When all the faffing over control of the competition was dragging on for the last year, over who would play in it, who would screen it and who would sponsor it, it was the prospect of games like this that kept you sane. This is why people part with hard-earned cash to watch rugby.

There has been already, and will be, hot competition for that hotspot. In rounds one and two this season the meeting of Tigers and Ulster, and Munster against Saracens, were occasions to savour, even if in both cases the away teams disappointed.

And next Sunday the clash of Harlequins and Leinster, evoking memories of Bloodgate in 2009, will be monumental. So too the collision between Tigers, two-time winners and aristocrats of this competition, with Toulon, the back-to-back champions representing the nouveau riche, will be worth watching.

But a full house in Limerick will give the competition its second biggest crowd so far - the first was at the same venue for the visit of Saracens in round one. The attraction for Munster fans is the fear factor that will drive their team. Always at their best in Europe when acutely aware that defeat is almost as likely as victory, this will be one of those days.

The pool table tells you that Anthony Foley's side are top with two from two, but they could readily find themselves in third place, behind Saracens, if they don't pull out a huge performance on Saturday. And with a trip to Stade Marcel Michelin to come the following weekend, it's conceivable the campaign could all be over in the space of eight days.

Their record against this opposition is misleading. Yes, Munster have lost three of the five meetings with Clermont over the years, but the context is more informative. In 2007/'08, each side won its home tie: Munster convincingly; Clermont less so, allowing Munster out the gate with a bonus point which ultimately saw them escape from the pool as winners. Without it they wouldn't have topped the group, and certainly wouldn't have had enough to qualify as one of the two best runners-up.

The following season the pool meetings were edge-of-the-seat affairs. Clermont had been stunned at home by Sale and then found themselves in trouble again in round three when Munster fetched up.

"I remember Marcus (Horan) scoring that unbelievable try in the corner and that was the one that got us through in the end," recalls James Coughlan, now earning a crust with Pau in France's Pro D2. "We would have been dead and buried without that."

In Limerick in the return leg, Jamie Cudmore got himself sent off for a frenzied assault on a remarkably restrained Paul O'Connell - Clermont still could have won, but for Brock James dodging responsibility - and again Munster came out top in the head-to-head.

The most recent meeting was in the semi-final two seasons ago when bonus points didn't matter. Munster had been scripted to be beaten out the gate that day in Montpellier, and instead ran Clermont down to the wire where again we saw their fragile nature when they come round the final bend in a neck-and-neck race.

"I'd be hoping that Munster get five points over the two games and Clermont get a maximum four," says Coughlan. "To be honest, I'd say that's how they're looking at it. Over the years Clermont have always had quality. Back then it was Julien Bonnaire in the back-row, and Cudmore in the second-row with Thibaud Privat who's playing now with Montpellier and is still as hard as coffin nails.

"Actually they've been a lot like Munster when it came to recruitment: they got Sivivatu in the backs and we got Doug (Howlett). Anytime they were recruiting they went after real quality and we did the same. Brock James, granted, has his on-days and his off-days - and Leinster comes to mind when he missed a few sitters - but he's still such a good player."

One of the great mysteries of European club rugby over the years has surrounded the number 10 spot in a couple of heavyweight, ambitious outfits. Northampton Saints for example have long had their eyes on big prizes since their one-off Heineken Cup win in 2000. One of the reasons they took so long to nail something down - the Premiership, last season was their deliverance - was the absence of a star at outhalf. Rather they have Stephen Myler, who flickers without casting much light.

With Clermont the situation has been even more pronounced. You look at the big games they have blown over the years - against Leinster, Munster and Toulon especially - and wonder how James has lasted so long as their main playmaker. A wonderful footballer and a very good distributor, neither of those assets are readily visible when the heat comes on.

Enter Camille Lopez. France is not exactly the production centre of top-class 10s in world rugby but Clermont are hoping that the 25-year-old who arrived last year from Bordeaux, via a quickie season in Perpignan, will turn out to be one of them. And that he can deliver when it matters.

Along with James and former All Black Mike Delany, they have deeper resources in that position than any other club in the competition, but you felt they missed a trick in failing to tie down Johnny Sexton when he felt unloved by the IRFU two seasons ago. Or else Sexton got it wrong in going to Racing. True, the blue-collar town of Clermont is not exactly Paris, but neither is it the Potchefstroom of France. And Sexton would have been the ideal fit for them: passionate and unrelenting and adored by their fantastic fans.

Clermont currently occupy the same space Munster did in the years between 2000 and 2006: a European powerhouse failing to get their trailing leg over the final hurdle. As usual, they are at war on two fronts, steaming along at the head of the Top 14 table ahead of Toulon coming into this weekend, and still very much in the hunt behind Munster in Pool 1.

The next fortnight will define their standing on the broader front. You could say the same for Munster, for if they are on at least 13 points at the end of these two rounds they will be on course heading for January and the trip to Saracens in round five.

"I would be shocked if Munster were beaten at home," Coughlan says. "Because they're top of the league I'm not sure Clermont will send over everybody. If they were struggling in mid-table they might be going: 'The Heineken Cup is the way we're going to get silverware,' but they're not."

For Ulster, there is no choice to be made: it's the Guinness Pro12 or bust. The missing link in a media tour of Kingspan Stadium last week was the bit where chief executive Shane Logan talked up his team's chances of success in Europe. Soon after Munster open up against Clermont on Saturday Ulster take on Scarlets in a game that will have abiding interest only for the away side.

Logan is not slow to beat the Ulster drum. He was just appointed to the job, nearly five years ago, when he said: "Whatever plan we put together has to deliver Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world."

That raised a few laughs locally for in February 2010, when he gave that interview, Ulster had just completed another European season where their interest ended with the pool phase. In this country our default is often to rubbish ambition from those close to home, rather that it should be the sole preserve of others, and that we should keep our heads down and our mouths shut. And it's pathetic.

So we salute Logan's drive for the top. As the sun was going down on the amateur era, when the late, great Jimmy Davidson was coaching the near-unbeatable Ulster team, it was the northern end of the island that had a handle on how to prepare for, and how to play, winning rugby. Further south we were still in a fog.

The parameters for Logan's mission statement however are that when you veer off the track for the stars you get pulled up on it. So he got a deserved kicking over the shabby treatment of former coach Brian McLaughlin, who was at the wheel when Ulster ended their 11-year exile from the knockout stages of the competition, and when they got to the final in 2012.

He got some more stick over the swift removal of Mark Anscombe last summer, a month after David Humphreys stunned them all in that part of the world with his decision to jump ship for Gloucester. The impression was of an organisation stumbling along with one hand trying to block out the sun and the other battling to keep its trousers up.

Landing Les Kiss, however, was good business. He commands huge respect both as a coach and a person, and despite the loss of key players in Johann Muller, John Afoa and Stephen Ferris, plus the delayed return of the injured Ruan Pienaar, their form hasn't taken them over the edge of the cliff.

In Limerick on Friday night they had a chance to fill their boots when they had a stronger selection on the field than Munster, and with Ian Humphreys swinging that big left boot like a metronome they were 12 points up with a scrum that was taking their opponents apart. The second half however saw two different teams at work.

Rory Best got into a running battle with referee Ian Davies, and looked utterly frustrated by the time he was replaced by Rob Herring. And Humphreys didn't look too happy when he blew a conversion to win the game after Ulster had recovered with a dubious try from Nick Williams, having earlier blown their lead.

Despite taking them to the top of the table overnight it won't have been any great boost for Munster, but for their visitors it was a mentally draining experience - particularly for Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall who were outplayed by their opposite numbers Gerhard van den Heever and Duncan Williams. It emphasises how far they have to go to back in the knock-out stages of Europe, never mind the Guinness Pro 12.

Off the field they are ticking lots of boxes. Their rebuild of Ravenhill into Kingspan Stadium has been impressive, not least the foresight of a design that allows them to fill in the corners and bring the capacity from 18,000 up to circa 26,000.

That decision will be driven by results. Ulster are blessed that this bricks-and-mortar investment in their future is largely debt-free, thanks to Government funding. They average 15,200 for home gates compared to 8,000 four years ago, and have transformed season ticket sales from 2,500 to over 10,000 in the same period. They have yet to crack the nut that opens with cash from a benefactor, but they are not alone in that. Munster, for example, are on the same search. For both, winning the big games is part of that deal.

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