Penney: We’re essentially facing a Test team

Keith Earls has reclaimed his place in the starting line-up for Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpel0lier against Clermont Auvergne.

Penney: We’re essentially facing a  Test team

The Limerick Lion has recovered from the shoulder injury that ruled him out of the province’s quarter-final success over Harlequins at The Stoop, and will start the game instead of Denis Hurley, who reverts to the bench.

French media claimed yesterday that Clermont skipper Aurelien Rougerie will miss the game through injury, but it is believed he will be given every chance to prove his fitness.

The game may not be taking place at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin, where Vern Cotter has overseen a French record 59 consecutive victories, but wherever you play, winning in France is one of the toughest examinations in rugby and it takes a contribution from the collective, not just a one man tour de force like Paul O’Connell.

“That is why they have the record they have because they are such a talented side. We were talking about it the other day, if that Clermont side was to play France they would beat them, we thought, just based on the personnel. So we are basically playing an international team and one of highest calibre. One that would challenge at the top echelon of international footie,” Munster coach Rob Penney said.

“I’m brand new here [coaching in Europe]. I think we’d all look at it right now and say that the toughest job of all is trying to play a French team in France of the calibre of Clermont in the form they are in. It will be massively challenging.”

Penney watched Montpellier put it up to Clermont in the quarter-finals, primarily and most effectively by keeping it tight and playing through their pack, spearheaded by Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze with archetypal nine-man rugby and scratching out an early 9-3 lead after 23 minutes. They still lost, though, France’s up and coming team falling victims to moments of individual brilliance as Clermont erupted out of their shell.

The Munster coach cautioned against planning for one style of play even if the tight approach was deep in the province’s DNA and suggested to overturn Clermont it would take a performance not yet seen from his players in this first season under his charge.

“It could suit us,” Penney said, before adding: “The thing about Clermont is what they do from unstructured play where you don’t have the opportunity to manufacture and build. They have so much firepower — Nalaga, Siteveni, Fofafa, Rougerie. If they get ball that is not controlled they can just turn up the heat really, really quickly on you and you can be left floundering.

“We won’t do it with individuals. If we get close to them it won’t be because we have had a superstar performance from one person, it will be because collectively we have operated at an efficiency level and an intensity level we have not operated with this year.”

There has been a suggestion that Clermont are beginning to feel the strain a little in their home stronghold as the winning streak lengthens, though their demolition of Toulouse last weekend showed little signs of anxiety. Even so, Penney will welcome any scenario that sees Clermont fans’ high expectations translate to pressure on their team.

“That’s the best way to nullify the support,” he said, “to create pressure. Pressure does funny things. You never know what the outcome can be of building consistent pressure over time does to individuals and groups. That will be part of what we’ll try to do.”

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