O’Connell says Clermont showdown his biggest challenge

Paul O’Connell last night described Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against raging hot favourites Clermont Auvergne as the biggest challenge he has faced in a Munster jersey.

The iconic second-rower, who skippered Munster to a shock quarter-final victory over Harlequins, believes fans can dream of a place in the final, but admitted it was probably the biggest ask in his time with the two-time champions.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge in my time; down the years we would have been massive underdogs going into some games, but when you look at Clermont you look at the players they are not going to pick in their 23 for this weekend and there’s an incredible amount of talent there.

“I think their bench would start on most Six Nations teams, not to mention Heineken Cup teams. It’s a phenomenally strong squad. They’ve been there or thereabouts for the last few years, always in the top two in the French Championship and there or thereabouts in the Heineken Cup. It’s just a massive challenge for us.”

Highlighting the fact that Munster go into the game as rank outsiders, he admits: “We’re going to need things to go our way to win it. You can sometimes win games with eight or nine players playing well, but we’re going to need 15 players playing out of their skins and then we’re going to need everyone coming off the bench to make a big impact as well.”

However, the Munster display against Harlequins at the Stoop has given him added confidence and he figures there are benefits in having tried and failed to play a certain style of game earlier in season, particularly in the RaboDirect Pro12 competition.

“We’ve been trying to play a certain way all year and I think we now have a framework that we can play it any way. We did that against Harlequins but it is important now to be able to do it for 80 minutes.”

“Clermont have big wingers that they can put into play carrying ball off first phase line outs, so all those set-piece battles are likely to be huge.”

Having apologised for his involvement in the David Kearney incident and insisting – as generally accepted — that a head injury sustained by the Leinster winger was a complete accident, O’Connell is desperately trying to focus on trying to lead Munster into another Heineken Cup final.

That will involve trying to dismantle the Clermont lineout, the French side’s success ratio formed around Jamie Cudmore, former Leinster second row Nathan Hines and a man of equal importance to French rugby as O’Connell is to Ireland, Julien Bonnaire.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the threat posed by Clermont out of touch: “They have an excellent lineout, it’s kind of typical French lineout where their back-row is probably their main lineout jumper and operator and Bonnaire has been doing it excellently for them and for France.

“Obviously Nathan Hines is a really good jumper and Jamie Cudmore is good as well; they hardly ever lose lineouts, it’s a big part of their game and they maul a lot.

“It will be a huge test for us. Anytime you can win 100% of your own lineout you’d be delighted. I wouldn’t expect that to happen against these guys, they have such a good lineout defence. It’s about how we react when we get ball and how we use it.”

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