Munster must summon spirit of 2000 that put Toulouse to the sword

As May beckons Munster and Leinster prepare for a French test. At the end of contrasting seasons, and facing a different calibre of opponent, the Red Army travel in hope, the blues wait in expectation.

Munster must summon spirit of 2000 that put Toulouse to the sword

As May beckons Munster and Leinster prepare for a French test. At the end of contrasting seasons, and facing a different calibre of opponent, the Red Army travel in hope, the blues wait in expectation.

It has been a strange season for Munster fans. It hasn't stopped these fans making a 1,500km journey to see their heroes though, according to the Evening Echo.

On the whole the Thomond Park outfit have underperformed by their own standards.

Still trying to readjust after losing so many influential players over the past two seasons, and with a new head coach at the helm, Munster have looked rudderless at times this season.

For the first time in four years they won’t feature in the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs and with just one league game remaining they trail leaders Ulster by a massive 26 points.

And yet, here they are, in another Heineken Cup semi-final, the only Irish side left standing in the competition, about to take on the tournament favourites.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect from the fans' perspective this season was not simply the poor performances or results, but the lack of that Munster grit, which has for so long been knitted into the red jersey.

Prior to the quarter-final triumph at the Twickenham Stoop, that trademark passion had been in hibernation, but what a difference 80 minutes can make.

Few gave Munster a chance before travelling to Harlequins, indeed in this column the point was made that Munster hadn’t offered enough this season to suggest they had a chance of overturning Conor O’Shea’s men.

Paul O'Connell leaving the Stoop after Munster's win over Harlequins this month. Pic: Inpho

On a day for leaders Paul O’Connell produced one of the great Munster performances. Peter O’Mahony reaffirmed his status as a player for the big occasion while Tommy O’Donnell, James Downey and Casey Laulala jumped up a few notches in the estimation of the Red Army.

That was a great day, a special day, one which may have saved Rob Penney’s troublesome first season. But it’s over now, and the bar has been set considerably higher for the next challenge.

Even before a ball was kicked in this year’s competition Clermont Auvergne looked menacing, as the semi-final approaches, they’re beginning to look unstoppable.

Vern Cotter’s men have knocked Toulon off the summit of the Top 14 and have enjoyed the perfect preparation for tomorrow's showdown.

It took a late Matt Giteau penalty to rescue a draw for Toulon against Clermont before the Stade Macrel Michilin outfit condemned Toulouse to a 39-17 defeat.

The Harlequins victory was a throw-back to the Munster of old. If they are to persevere they must recall the spirit of 2000 when Declan Kidney’s men embraced the underdog tag and came away from the Stade Chaban Delmas celebrating a 25-31 win over Toulouse.

Clip via Mildy Mac on youTube.

Clermont have enjoyed a settled look to their starting XV all season but untimely injuries will deprive them of captain Aurelien Rougerie and openside flanker Gerhard Vosloo who was inspirational against Montpellier in the quarter-final.

Regan King will wear the number 13 jersey. The former Scarlets man has a wealth of experience and at 6ft 2in and 93kg he certainly doesn’t make the Clermont backline any less imposing.

But Rougerie’s centre partnership with Wesley Fofana is one of the deadliest in the northern hemisphere and the Frenchs side will no doubt be frustrated to see it upset at this crucial juncture.

Julien Bardy comes in to replace Vosloo while Brock James has been restored at flyhalf in place of the ineligible Mike Delany.

Munster’s only change from the quarter-final team is a positive one with Keith Earls adding some much needed pace to the wing, having recovered from the shoulder injury he picked up in the Six nations.

There are fascinating face-offs all over the pitch. O’Connell v Jamie Cudmore has grabbed headlines for obvious reasons due to their history against each other. Not least for distasteful reasons as the French media tried to insinuate a violent streak in O’Connell’s game after the lock’s clumsy but unintentional kick on Dave Kearney.

But the battle of the number 6’s could prove the most compelling as one of Ireland’s rising starts O’Mahony locks horns with one of his icons and one of the best blindside’s in Europe over the past decade, Julien Bonnaire.

Against Harlequins leaders like O’Connell and O’Mahony stood up early on and the rest followed suit. For Munster to have any chance all XV must reproduce and improve upon the performance in the Twickenham Stoop.

Leinster welcome a Biarritz team struggling for form domestically to the RDS tomorrow afternoon, with the Basque Country side fourth from bottom in the Top 14.

The French side come into the weekend on the back of defeats to Perpignan and Bordeaux-Bègles. By way of contrast Leinster recovered from their league defeat to Ulster with impressive triumphs over Munster and Zebre.

Leinster celebrating their recent win over Munster a few weeks ago. Pic: Inpho.

Leinster’s appetite for the Challenge Cup was made clear in their 48-28 demolition of London Wasps.

Gordon D’Arcy produced a man-of-the-match performance in the clash but has been ruled through injury for tomorrow’s showdown, provoking Joe Schmidt to make the intriguing call of playing Ian Madigan at twelve despite having more natural centres available in Andrew Goodman and Fergus McFadden who will start on the wing.

Leinster struggled to cope with the raw pace of Christian Wade in Adams Park, a point which will have been noted by Biarritz who will no doubt look to find American Flyer Taku Ngwenya in space on the flanks, but the blues' defence is always more assured with Brian O’Driscoll calling the shots.

Biarritz still rely heavily on the 8/9 axis of Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili to provide the spark to their game.

With an all international pack backed up by the likes of Sexton, O’Driscoll, Madigan and Kearney, in front of a home crowd who won’t forget that this time last year they were en route to a second successive Heineken cup, Leinster should prove too strong.

Predictions:

Clermont to beat Munster by 12 points.

Leinster to go through with a ten point winning margin.

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