Penney backing O’Gara to deliver

Munster head coach Rob Penney revealed last night that he believes Ronan O’Gara will have a pivotal role to play if the two-time Heineken Cup champions are to upset the odds and beat ASM Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier today.

O’Gara, 36, will be appearing in a record 110th Heineken Cup game and his 10th semi-final this evening at Stade de la Masson. The Corkman, who is set to decide this summer whether he will accept a one-year contract extension to stay with the province or take up an offer to begin a coaching career overseas, kicked all 18 points in Munster’s epic away quarter-final victory over English champions Harlequins earlier this month to further enhance his status as the tournament’s leading all-time points scorer with 1,360.

Now Penney is hoping his side can contain an adventurous and free-scoring Clermont side and let O’Gara work his magic again in a head-to-head with this season’s leading points scorer, scrum-half Morgan Parra.

“I think we’ve got certainly one of the most accomplished kickers from hand and for points the game has ever seen in Ronan O’Gara,” Penney said yesterday as the player in question kicked some range finders during a short visit to Stade de la Masson.

“If it becomes a contest of kicking ability and opportunities taken then you’d have to back someone of Rog’s ability to keep us close, there’s no doubt about that.

“We’ve got some other able people in terms of our kicking strategy as well. If the game is really close it’ll come down to the minute detail of the accuracy of what we’re doing. We’re going to be there or thereabouts given the calibre of someone like Rog on our side.”

Limiting Parra’s opportunities in front of goal will be another key objective for Munster today, just as it was in limiting Harlequins’ Nick Evans to just five goal attempts at the Stoop, the New Zealand fly-half slotting four of them in a tryless game as O’Gara successfully kicked six from eight penalties.

“I think it is always a good plan to defend as well as you can and be as disciplined as you can and not give the team you are playing easy points,” Paul O’Connell said. “That’s always the tactic, even more so in the semi-final.”

O’Connell, who will continue as captain in the absence of the injured Doug Howlett, admitted playing French league leaders Clermont meant the fear factor played an even greater part in his team’s motivation for the big game.

“I think sometimes fear plays a big role in how we play and however much we had against Harlequins is probably doubled this time around, when you look at the Clermont team, the talent they have at their disposal, the squad they have.

“We’ve a good mix of fear and confidence going into a game and it’s probably there more than ever against a team like this, so we realise totally how tough a game this is going to be.

“We know where we need to be mentally and physically to win this game. We’re going to have to be at the highest pitch we’ve ever been as players. I said during the week, you know, sometimes you can win games with eight or nine players playing well. We’re going to need 15 players having stormers tomorrow and then whoever comes off the bench has got to make a big impact as well. I think mentally, hopefully, we’re in a good place to do that.”

There was further good news yesterday when Ireland and Lions back Keith Earls was passed fit to play after recovering from a dislocated shoulder he suffered on March 16 in the Six Nations finale against Italy. Earls will start on the wing as replacement for Howlett, with Denis Hurley, who started the quarter-final dropping to the bench, Penney opting to stick with his blossoming midfield combination of James Downey and Casey Laulala.

“It’s fantastic,” Penney said of Earl’s return. “Obviously the loss of Doug has been a big blow for us. But having someone of Keith’s ability is a real bonus. We’re really confident in his shoulder. Obviously he’s a bit underdone rugby-wise but he’s a class act. We’ve total faith in him.”

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