This is only the beginning for Reds’ next generation

Heineken Cup semi-final

This is only the beginning for Reds’ next generation

Not that it has ever worried them in the past, but the odds are stacked against the province in Montpellier as Rob Penney’s team take on a powerhouse of Top 14 rugby on French soil, backed by 20,000 passionate supporters in a 31,000-plus crowd and packed with internationals not just from one to 15, but 16 to 23 also.

No-one needs any reminding that Munster have made a habit of upsetting the odds in the last 13 years or so, but to these eyes, today’s game should be treated in a similar vein to a decade ago when a young Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and co. were finding their way in the world, suffering setbacks and gaining strength from all of them to the point where they finally found the holy grail of Heineken Cup glory in 2006.

It took losing two finals and three semi-finals before they reached their goal and it may take some setbacks for this evolving Munster side to stumble a couple of times before they eventually walk tall in Europe.

The quarter-final victory over Harlequins three weeks ago was equally beneficial, of course, and it was significant that O’Connell praised the contribution of the younger brigade to the defeat of the English champion at the Stoop.

For that was the day when Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony, Mike Sherry and Dave Kilcoyne, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray all stepped up and took a little more ownership of this Munster group, pointing the way to a bright future for them and a return to the Heineken Cup elite for their province.

As O’Connell, who will captain Munster once again in the absence of the injured Doug Howlett, said yesterday at Stade de la Masson, the next stage is for them to keep stepping up, game after game.

“It’s all challenges,” O’Connell said. “I mean, to go away from home and win a quarter-final against the English champions, you know, when you do it once it gives you great belief and we probably all gave ourselves a pat on the back for that.

“But then the next challenge comes and it’s about trying to be consistent and trying to do it back to back and trying to be a consistently good side. I think that’s what Leinster have done over the past few years, we haven’t always done it, but now we have an opportunity to match two big away performances together and it’s going to be a tough challenge.”

O’Connell is right to point out the let-downs that have sometimes followed great dawns, even last season under Tony McGahan when Munster won all six of their pool games only to fall flat at home to Ulster in the quarter-final.

Even the 18-12 Harlequins victory earlier this month has been followed by a home league defeat to arch enemies Leinster and a second string loss at the Dragons. Yet O’Connell sees the positives.

“I think we were very close to [backing it up] for the game against Leinster six days later. That was a really tough physical game, played in wet conditions which probably made it very tight and very physical. I was delighted and I know Rob was.

“It was disappointing not to get the result, but I think when you look at Clermont playing, their whole game is about intensity up front and out wide. You know they play with massive intensity and they put lots of pressure on teams and we are going to have to match that and go beyond it if we are to have a chance of winning. Few teams seem capable of doing it against them at the moment but that is what we are going to have to do.”

Indeed they are, because this is a Clermont side that bring power and precision to their intensity and an ability to hurt teams in a variety of painful ways, as has been witnessed most recently by their demolition of Toulouse in the Top 14 last weekend.

Clermont are more than capable of battling successfully on two fronts and while they lead their domestic league — already guaranteed a home play-off semi-final — they reached the European semi-finals as the only team with a 100% record this season.

Their players bestride the Heineken Cup statistics charts like titans, from scrum-half Morgan Parra’s tournament-leading 97 points from 36 successful goal kicks at an 84% success, to wing Napolioni Nalaga’s six tries from seven games, his 84 carries and 24 defenders beaten.

So how do you stop a team like Clermont, a team that can play expansively from deep or in the tight, be just as dangerous working within a structured game plan or in broken play and with any manner of personnel permutations? It certainly makes the downfall of Vern Cotter’s outfit a difficult one to plot, as O’Connell readily admitted.

“I suppose that’s the thing about Clermont, they can attack you everywhere. They’re obviously a very strong, tough unit up front and they’ve a fantastic back line as well and they can attack you every which way.

“I think when we played them four years ago and we analysed them, they were probably more predictable than they are now.

“They were an easier team to analyse, right now they’re a very tough team to analyse. You just don’t know what they’re going to throw at you, what way they’ll play against you and that makes it very tough for us.”

It certainly seems a tall order and, for once, one that makes it difficult to look past Clermont booking a place in the Dublin final.

There is always hope, of course, and the doubt that must surely nag in Clermont supporters’ minds is that for all their side’s talents, they are still to reach a Heineken Cup decider, having only got to their first semi a year ago.

That was on French soil too and it took an almighty effort from Leinster in Bordeaux to halt Cotter’s side.

Yet Clermont took their medicine and have come back stronger for their setback, even dispatching Leinster home and away in the process.

Now, perhaps the time is right for Clermont to break new ground, just like Munster did in reaching their first final in 2000 and finally winning one six years later, with another two seasons after that.

This is a Munster side embarking on a similar journey. Hopefully it will not take as long as the one travelled by O’Connell, but if today’s semi-final ends in defeat, those younger players will be all the stronger for the experience.

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