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Clermont's O'Connell jibes may return to haunt them

IT is surely the ultimate irony – Clermont Auvergne, with a squad of some of the world's most expensive talents, cry 'foul' before a ball is kicked.

Clermont's almost manic quest for Heineken Cup glory is so fraught with danger for the game's self-styled aristocrats that, already, they are propagating the view that they are the victims of an international conspiracy.

If you are to believe Clermont coach Vern Cotter and his second-row Jamie Cudmore, you would think that the ERC, the competition's governing body, and perhaps even a secret cabal of the illuminati, conspired to ensure Paul O'Connell is eligible for today's game.

Last week, Cudmore was at his mischievous best when he took to social media to offer his opinion on an incident that has taken on a life of its own. It's inconceivable his "how long for a kick in the head these days?" offering won't make it onto the Munster dressing-room wall today.

Cudmore, of course, has previous with O'Connell from the meeting at Thomond Park five years ago when the Canadian international was sent off after an incident for which the Munster captain received a yellow card.

In that flare-up between the two, Cudmore was deemed the instigator and aggressor when he landed three punches to O'Connell's head before the Munster talisman unloaded with a flurry of his own and was shown leniency – for reacting rather than instigating.

Whatever the history between the two players and teams, it was somewhat surprising that Cudmore and Cotter both weighed into the controversy surrounding O'Connell and the non-citing.

slight

It would be remarkable, if not implausible to suggest that Leinster, and former Clermont coach Joe Schmidt hasn't educated his former colleagues on Munster's ability to turn the slightest slight – perceived or otherwise – to their advantage.

Cotter and Cudmore's comments haven't gone unnoticed in Limerick and Cork this past week. Munster will likely look to use the comments to stimulate a little resentment and build spirit for it is abundantly clear they will need every advantage they can muster if they are to triumph.

The enormity of the task facing Munster cannot be overstated. Clermont are unbeaten in 59 games at their home citadel. They are the most consistent team in the Top 14 Championship and have been for quite some time.

They boast the tournament's top two try-scorers in winger Napolioni Nalaga, with six touch-downs and Wesley Fofana, who has five to his name. Morgan Parra is also in a rich vein of form from the tee, with 36 successful goals.

Munster's defence has been the stand-out feature of their season and their big-hitters, James Downey, Casey Laulala and Tommy O'Donnell will have to be at their most vigilant tonight.

Clermont are ravenous for the European recognition that has eluded them thus far. This is just their second appearance in a Heineken Cup semi-final, but their unexceptional European record belies the threat they pose.

In truth, it's very difficult to identify just where their weaknesses are, even allowing for the absence of a number of marquee players, not least captain Aurelien Rougerie, who is replaced by former All Black Regan King.

Their pack is particularly impressive, their strength epitomised by their second-rows. Nathan Hines and Cudmore are monsters. Aside from his exploits with Leinster, Hines has soldiered at the brutal coalface of French rugby with both Perpignan and Clermont, while Cudmore's credentials need no further endorsement than the length of his stay at the club.

Clermont splash the cash every year to recruit the best players money can buy, but Cudmore has been with them since 2005 without ever coming under pressure. Munster can, with some justification, point to their own strength in this area and they will bid to undermine Clermont's quest for greatness by limiting the supply of quality possession from the set-piece, especially out of touch.

One of the most impressive aspects of Munster's performance in their quarter-final win over Harlequins at the Stoop was the efficiency of their lineout. Not only did they win clean possession, but Harlequins were unable to put any pressure on in the air, such was the precision and movement of O'Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O'Mahony.

James Coughlan and O'Donnell offer further options, but Clermont are no slouches either in this department. Their line-out is actually run by captain Julien Bonnaire from the back-row, with Damien Chouly augmenting their second-row options.

Outside of the set-piece, Munster's tactics today will not be complicated. They will put their faith in their two most seasoned gladiators, O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.

These two veterans remain the stand-out performers in an emerging Munster team, that are being driven by their two talismen to find the granite hardness and indomitable spirit of John 'Bull' Hayes, Alan Quinlan, Anthony Foley and those who have previously worn the blood-red uniform with such distinction.

Clermont have been dented in the build-up to this game as their spiritual leader Rougerie and then back-row Gerhard Vosloo fell victim to hamstring injuries.

The French club are also concerned about the state of Brock James' hamstring after a recent injury and that is surely in Munster's favour, as is their tradition and history in this competition.

When it comes to delivering on the big stage and in the most demanding of circumstances, Munster have the X-factor, that intangible quality where someone on a given day produces something magical.

They will again entertain ambitions of upsetting the odds today.

It will not have gone unnoticed either that Clermont are vulnerable in defence. In this regard, the decision making of O'Gara is paramount.

Clermont's 'rush-defence' can be circumvented by a well-executed kick behind them or a skip-pass to take out any 'bolters' from the line. If O'Gara can choose the right pass or kick at the most opportune moment, then Laulala, Zebo and Earls can make hay.

The potential of this particular contest is considerable and the sense of anticipation it encourages is delicious, given its possibilities. Yet any cold, analytical examination of the combatants suggests that this is a mismatch of almost epic proportions.

With Munster you just never know ... which is why it is always dangerous to bet against them – as we discovered in the quarter-final.

Verdict: Munster

Irish Independent