Munster rugby is facing a stiff Clermont challenge

I’m not sure how long it’s been since Munster sat on top of the Pro 12, but there must be a feeling of quiet satisfaction within the squad as they head back into European action, writes Donal Lenihan.

The conclusion of the international window last weekend also served to remind all those involved with the national squad we should not be getting too carried away with ourselves heading into the New Year.

Wins for England and Wales over Australia and South Africa, respectively, offered a timely reminder this could be the most competitive Six Nations championship in years.

The power of England’s scrum, which completely demolished the Wallaby eight, highlighted the work Ireland need to do in that area given Australia shaded that battle against us.

Wales also showed they are a resilient bunch after the recent defeats to Australia and New Zealand. Once they find their rhythm they are a difficult team to beat.

For some reason, they are always very slow out of the blocks but the fact they don’t play Ireland until round four of the championship in Cardiff means they will surely have found their second wind by the time we arrive.

Scotland have shown enough form and a newfound attacking threat under former Clermont Auvergne coach Vern Cotter to suggest they too will be far more competitive than we have seen in years while — as the Springboks discovered recently — the Italians will take a while to break down.

As for the French, they remain as enigmatic as ever. Beat Australia one week, lose to Argentina the following week. Over the course of the same 80 minutes they can appear classy, inventive, lazy, unfit, disorganised and ill- disciplined. That’s a fair achievement.

While that French squad included a number of Clermont Auvergne players, you can be sure they will show little of the negative virtues that attach to the national side when they take on the Munster challenge over the next two weekends of European action.

After an indifferent start to the season, they are playing great rugby at present and only surrendered top spot in the French championship last Saturday by virtue of a 27-19 defeat away to holders Toulon, who leapfrogged them in the table.

As Ulster discovered in the last round of European action when they travelled to Belfast, Toulon are getting stronger and stronger, yet Clermont matched them in all aspects for the majority of last Saturday’s thrilling contest.

The realists within the Munster group will only be too aware they were very fortunate to escape with a win against Ulster on Friday night and the set piece difficulties highlighted in that narrow win will have to be rectified to have any chance of beating Clermont Auvergne on Saturday.

At least the 5.30pm kick off should help launch the unique atmosphere that oozes through every sinew of Thomond Park on occasions such as this and Munster will need to take every advantage that attaches to a home game to win.

You can be sure Clermont will do just that when the roles are reversed at the fabulous Stade Marcel Michelin the following week.

The next few weeks offer a stern examination for Anthony Foley and his management team and will prove pivotal in their quest to remain competitive to the end of the season.

After the demanding double header against Clermont, Munster face high-flying Glasgow Warriors, Leinster and Connacht in the Guinness Pro12, with the Leinster clash on St Stephen’s Day the only home tie.

The Sportsground in Galway will be heaving for the New Year’s Day visit of Munster and with their trio of classy New Zealanders in All Black — centurion Mils Muliaina, his former Waikato Chiefs teammate Bundi Aki and Tom McCartney — all now safely ensconced in the West and already making an impact on their squad, Connacht will be baying for a Munster scalp to welcome in 2015.

Foley won’t have much time to enjoy the Christmas pudding this year and as we all know, Axel likes his pudding.

The fact Clermont rested a number of their regular backline starters against Toulon, including Wesley Fofana, Camille Lopez, Nick Abendonan and Nao Seru Nakaitaci, suggests they will rock up at Thomond Park with all guns blazing.

They have a phenomenal squad of international quality drawn from New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Canada, England, Wales, Portugal, Georgia and, of course, France but the most significant addition of all this season arrived from relegated Perpignan.

After a number of undistinguished seasons with Bordeaux, Begles, and laterally Perpignan, Camille Lopez has emerged as the quality out-half the French national team has craved for years. He differs from other French No 10s in that he brings the practical game management skills of a Johnny Sexton to the table that a succession of his predecessors found impossible to deliver.

One of the principal reasons Clermont have never won a Heineken Cup is that the Australian Brock James failed to deliver on that front when it mattered most. James was back in the No 10 jersey against Toulon last weekend but you will be able to judge Clermont’s intent this weekend from whom they select at out-half.

The other reason that makes me wary for Munster’s prospects is the presence of former Leinster forwards coach Jonno Gibbs in that role for the visitors. He knows exactly what is required if you entertain any hope of winning in Limerick. The first priority is that your front five have to turn up ready for war. He just couldn’t believe the extent with which the highly rated Toulouse pack were blown away in last season’s quarter-final in that incredible 47-23 victory. You can be sure whatever combination Clermont pick up front this weekend, and Gibbs has an incredible array of options open to him for every row of the scrum, the former All Black will make sure that they are up for the fight.

Leinster, despite struggling with form and injury all season, are still winning matches. They return to the Stoop next Sunday for the first time since the Bloodgate affair with three Heineken Cups to their credit since that infamous outing. Harlequins are having a very poor season by their recent high standards but this game offers them the chance to kick-start a revival.

Leinster are in a decent position in this tournament with two wins already in the bag but this will be their most stern examination to date. Matt O’Connor has a number of injured bodies back in contention since round two with Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney and Jordi Murphy available for selection while the emergence of No 8 Jack Conan adds to an already talented bunch of back rowers.

Leinster should have enough in the tank to win this one and set up what could be a fruitful period when they welcome Conor O’Shea’s side back to the Aviva Stadium for their annual Christmas extravaganza six day later.

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