Sampling the Heineken Cup for the first time, just three weeks after the high of leading his country to success in the Stade de France, Smit revealed his surprise at the speed of the game. “We (Clermont Auvergne) had good off loads, good skills and a great hunger. This is one of the most professional outfits I have ever been involved with.”
For a player who has tasted the rarefied atmosphere of Super 14 rugby with the Natal Sharks for a number of years, his endorsement of European cup rugby means something.
While the Munster fans may have abandoned the traditional charters, somehow close to 10,000 made the journey from far and wide to provide a thunderous welcome when Ronan O’Gara led his charges onto the Ricoh Arena. With as good a rendition of the Fields of Athenry as any heard over the years, the players must have felt that it was time for normal service to resume.
Sometimes in the aftermath of the World Cup, domestic competitions suffer. Therefore tournament director Derek McGrath will be thrilled with the quality on offer last weekend. I have no intention of covering old ground in respect of the bizarre seeding system, but the two games in Pool 5 alone would have done justice to any semi-finals.
The World Cup, in the main, produced staid rugby, dominated by the boot and a conservative mindset that stifled risk-taking. The opening half in Coventry provided a refreshing contrast when both Munster and Wasps threw caution to the wind, regularly looking to gain territory with ball in hand.
There was even the sight of Munster running from deep in their 22 when, by playing heads-up rugby, it was recognised that overlaps were available out wide. The intensity of the forward exchanges was breathtaking and it was great to see so many of the Munster pack playing at a far higher level than we saw in France.
Twenty four hours later in the French midlands, Clermont Auvergne and Llanelli served up a 10 try feast of running rugby that thrilled from start to finish. Clermont, stung by their defeat in the French championship final last season, have added greatly to an already impressive squad. Saturday’s performance suggests that they have gelled as a unit and will provide serious opposition for Munster when they arrive at Thomond Park on Sunday.
Scoring seven tries in total, they were awesome at times and the frightening thing is that Llanelli, managing three tries on their own, didn’t play badly and yet lost 48-21.
The consequence of Saturday’s defeat for Munster is clear. They simply have to win this one to stay in contention. No side has ever qualified for the knock out stages of this tournament on the back of losing their opening two pool games.
In the past the Thomond Park factor was worth at least a six point start before the opposition even entered the field. With a new stadium under construction and 12 months away from completion, it will be interesting to see just what kind of atmosphere prevails in the shell of a ground on Sunday.
Munster’s traditional slot at 5:30pm under lights on Saturday was tailor-made for theatre. Whether or not that atmosphere can be replicated under the current circumstances remains to be seen. Against such quality opposition, Munster will need every bit of help they can get.
That said, Clermont travel a road littered with the shattered expectations of the likes of Toulouse, Stade Francais, Bourgoin, Biarritz, Castres, Colomiers and Perpignan, each leaving Limerick empty-handed.
As always there are question marks over the French on the road. Last weekend was a case in point. Mighty Toulouse scraped a fortunate win in Murrayfield against Edinburgh by a margin of four points while the mighty Biarritz struggled away to Viadana, scoring just one try in an eight point victory. The only other French side playing away, Bourgoin were beaten by the Ospreys in Swansea.
For me the most important ingredient in Munster’s performance in Coventry was the hunger and appetite for battle displayed by the forwards.
Nowhere was this epitomised better than in the whole hearted performance of Alan Quinlan. It was also heartening that, despite the absence of Paul O’Connell and John Hayes from the 35th minute, Munster, with their traditional driving maul in full flow, controlled possession for long periods.
The improvement in Tony Buckley’s game in recent months has been incredible and the manner in which he smashed through English giant Simon Shaw at one stage displayed a show of power and aggression we have been waiting to emerge.
Munster will have it all to do to subdue an impressive Clermont attack; Aurelien Rougerie was excellent against Llanelli scoring a hat trick of tries in the process. Munster’s defence still requires fine tuning, understandable given the restructured nature of the midfield. While Lifeimi Mafi was outstanding with ball in hand, there are times when he needs to maintain his discipline and hold the defensive line. He must learn to work in tandem with those inside and outside him. Munster’s receipt of kick-offs was also suspect on Saturday and needs work.
Once again the back row face a major battle against quality opposition in the form of French internationals Julien Bonnaire and Elvis Vermulin. Bonnaire had a superb World Cup and will prove an inspired acquisition for Clermont this season.
Despite their strength in depth, Clermont are comparative novices in this tournament. For Munster to win they must utilise every ounce of experience and street wisdom, generated over countless campaigns over the last 10 years. It could prove the vital difference.
Likewise Leinster face a daunting task when they travel to Toulouse for a strange fixture with a 9pm (French time) kick off on Sunday. While Toulouse were disappointing last weekend a stronger indication of recent form was their 28-9 demolition of Stade Francais two weeks ago. All Black Byron Kelleher was outstanding that night and it will be interesting to see if he starts ahead of Jean Baptiste Elissalde who may be forced to play in the unfamiliar role at out-half.
That apart, Toulouse are as strong and menacing as ever with the back row of Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusautoir and Fina Maka creating all sorts of problems for Edinburgh.
However, Leinster, on the back of their memorable quarter final victory two years ago, will harbour no inhibitions for this game. The style of rugby favoured by Toulouse suits Leinster. If the game becomes fractured and broken then Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Felipe Contepomi will create havoc.
Of more importance to the mental well-being, this Leinster squad was the performance of the front five against Leicester. Ollie le Roux and Leo Cullen have added considerably to the quality up front while Jamie Heaslip has continued to show the form that should have earned him a slot in Ireland’s World Cup squad.
The victory over the Tigers last weekend has taken a huge amount of pressure off Leinster for this fixture, a factor which may well work in their favour. Two years ago everything went right for Brian O’Driscoll’s men. To win, the same would have to happen on this occasion.