Munster sweat on Howlett and Earls ahead of Clermont clash

Munster skipper Doug Howlett remains “very doubtful” for Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against competition favourites Clermont Auvergne as head coach Rob Penney assesses a mixed bag of injury news before finalising his team selection.

Former All Blacks winger Howlett missed the quarter-final victory over Harlequins having injured a shoulder in the previous weekend’s game in Glasgow on March 29 while tighthead prop Stephen Archer is definitely ruled out of the trip to Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson with a wrist injury suffered on Friday against the Dragons. He’ll be sidelined for around four weeks.

Munster will have to wait a little longer to address their two other injury concerns with outside centre Keith Earls having trained yesterday but needs to come through today’s session at Musgrave Park in Cork before the shoulder he dislocated in the final Six Nations game against Italy on March 16 is passed fit for purpose. Second row Donncha O’Callaghan (knee) is in a similar position but fellow lock Donnacha Ryan should be okay to face the French side having been stood down since the Harlequins game on April 7 to nurse his problematic shoulder back to health.

Penney admits his side face a formidable challenge against Kiwi compatriot Vern Cotter’s Clermont but he has urged his players to thrive on their underdog tag.

“There’s no doubt Clermont are roaring hot favourites and we’re underdogs. You can either thrive under that tag or wilt away,” Penney said.

“The best teams should be in the Heineken Cup at this stage and Clermont are certainly in that bracket.

“They’ve got real depth. We were going through their substitutes and you would be just wrapped to have them. They have an All Black 9, 10, 12 and 13 on the bench and Sitiveni (Sivivatu) starts on the wing.

“But we still have a lot of expectation from the Munster public and supporters, it’s a double-edged sword.

“I don’t want to say we believe we will beat them but we are going to go over there and give it a good crack. A game of rugby is such a dynamic one that on any given day an underdog can pull it off.

“It’s 15 versus 15, we have a great referee in Nigel Owens and we just have to make sure we prepare well and perform.”

Munster warmed up for Saturday’s game with a last-gasp 30-24 defeat to Newport Gwent Dragons last Friday night at Rodney Parade.

The province has now lost back-to-back RaboDirect Pro12 matches since upsetting Harlequins at the Stoop but Penney, who rested the vast majority of his first-team stars, insists it will not knock their confidence.

“We were disappointed with the result in the end. It was one of those games where we lost it in the first-half. We came back well but couldn’t quite complete it.

“It won’t affect confidence at all. We have managed to get into a semi-final and now have to focus on a massive game against Clermont.”

Munster were plagued by ill-discipline at Rodney Parade and saw Paddy Butler and Damien Varley sent to the sin-bin in the defeat.

Penney admits it was disappointing but he was frustrated with some of the interpretations of Italian referee Claudio Blessano and an alleged incident in the build up to Varley’s yellow.

He added: “It comes down to interpretation as well. The critical one was after the third try where we had momentum. A guy on the ground punches our guy in the testicles and we get the yellow card.

“It was a touch-judge call, he intimated there was a stomp but that should be a red card. But that’s what happens sometimes when you are out of town.”

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