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A cut above

Stuart Barnes knows the risk of writing off Munster, but cannot see them getting past Clermont Auvergne in Heineken Cup semi-final

Munster Posted 22nd April 2013 view comments

The play-offs are in view but last and next weekend is all about Europe.

The Northern Hemisphere's elite competition may be the victim of sporting politics off the field but on it the action remains compelling. Even before a ball is kicked in anger over the semi-final weekend, Exeter played their Heineken trump card and delivered a stunning knock out verdict at Wasps.

Wesley Fofana: danger man in the centre for Clermont

Wesley Fofana: danger man in the centre for Clermont

The former champions of Europe were both outplayed and out-thought by Rob Baxter in the changing room and a sharp-witted team brilliantly (again) marshalled from fly half by Gareth Steenson.

There is not a more improved player in the Premiership. His performance at Wasps and his recent masterclass against Harlequins were up there with the best balanced efforts from a ten in English rugby.

Munster has a fantastic European record and the sheer overwhelming quality of the home team works in their favour. It truly is a nothing to lose scenario, so strong and fancied are Clermont.

Stuart Barnes
Quotes of the week

LIVE ON SKY SPORTS
Heineken Cup Semi-Finals

Clermont v Munster
4.30pm, Sat, Sky Sports 1 HD
Saracens v Toulon
2pm, Sun, Sky Sports 2 HD

Their European fate is firmly in their hands. If they beat Gloucester they will qualify again and probably in fifth place position. Again the Devonians have excelled. Baxter's reputation grows rapidly.

If they lose to a Gloucester team who secured their return to the Heineken by beating Saracens, it will take another Saracens loss at home to Bath to prevent Exeter qualifying.

Despite losing in the West Country it would be a shock for them to drop a home game even with a home play-off assured. Bath' season best against Leicester keeps them in with a shout, or maybe a whisper.

Saracens - for all their famed focus - must have had one eye on the forthcoming clash with Toulon at Twickenham on Sunday. Eighty minutes from a Heineken Cup final, they have to drown the murmurs of discontents from their critics aside and play a brutally direct game of rugby.

The Wilkinson factor

To try and play too much rugby in their own half is to bring the referee's whistle and Jonny Wilkinson's boot into the equation. That is not a good recipe for winning rugby. Leicester were undone by a startling display of goal kicking the like of which Owen Farrell lacks the distance to match.

He too will kick his pressure goals but Saracens need him within range and Wilkinson outside his. The quality of the Saracens line out for whom Steve Borthwick appears to get better and better and a Toulon scrum that did more than creak against Leicester offers hope that a solid enough platform will be put in place to allow Richard Wigglesworth (presumably) to tease the Toulon back three with his array of tactical kicks.

For all the fire power at its disposal the back three are not renowned on the counter attack and with Delon Armitage always likely to blow a fuse a barrage of kicks is no bad idea. Saracens has a great chase game and a remarkable ability to keep the pressure on the opposition with its swarm defence.

If Wilkinson is going backwards and trying to bring his centres into play, not even Matt Giteau will extricate Toulon from a losing retreat. Saracens has the game to win but Toulon has an array of highly skilled off-loading players able to strike from anywhere. Leicester's defence was heroic to keep them try less in the quarter final. The reliance on kicks was more credit to defence than any debit against the French attack.

Nor will Toulon freeze. They have a team of men who thrive rather than shrink from the big occasion and in club rugby few will come bigger than Twickenham next Sunday. Saracens has the game to win but Toulon the individuals to make that conclusion anything but a foregone one. My money will not be leaving my pockets.

Respect

Offer me a decent price and I would empty them and put the house on Clermont in Saturday's semi-final. Munster were heroic against Harlequins but Harlequins are currently not inhabiting the same playing stratosphere as a Clermont team that thrashed Toulouse as a warm up to the semi-final.

I have written Munster off before and suffered much deserved and mainly good hearted abuse form Munster fans ever since I forecast they would be swept away by Perpignan. Any team with Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara on board gets my respect.

Munster has a fantastic European record and the sheer overwhelming quality of the home team works in their favour. It truly is a nothing to lose scenario, so strong and fancied are Clermont.

Munster will have to engulf their opponents at the breakdown (risking much in the process), dominate the line outs and kick their goals. Conor Murray is perhaps playing for a Lions place. A masterful performance in Montpellier would clinch it. The same might just be said for both Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo, perhaps Donncha Ryan too. Victory in Clermont could throw all Warren Gatland's preconceptions overboard. Such is the size of the challenge.

In the Amlin Munster's great rivals, Leinster, face another French team in the semi-final. Good as Biarritz was at Gloucester they are not in the same class as Clermont. Home advantage should secure a berth in the final as long as Joe Schmidt's team keep pressure on the masterly Dimitri Yachvilli and do not kick aimlessly to Biarritz's blistering back three. Wasps punished them in the last round and a much tighter defence is expected with a superior kicking game...which brings us to Jonny Sexton.

A successful 65 minutes against Zebre does not prove one should be the Lions test ten. A command performance on Saturday might ease nerves in the Lions camp. A class act, he has to show he is as good now as he was before his injury. The game will be worth watching just to analyse his form - it'll also be worth watching for so much more.

Hook's chance to shine

Dewi is heading to Catalonia to call an all-French semi-final with Perpignan looking to repeat their powerful quarter final performance against Toulouse with a dominant display against Stade Francais who keep trying to qualify for the Heineken via the Amlin. Sergio Parisse heads a star cast of under performers who showed how good they can be when they are bothered at Bath.

For Perpignan, James Hook could be playing for a slot as Lions utility player. I hope Hook makes the plane. I have reservations about his reading of a game at ten but recent weeks hint at a new, mature game and the bloke can rip up a field with his skills from either centre position or full back.

It is a busy weekend for Lions selectors but that is the sideshow; for three days Europe alone matters and the chips can fall where they will. Enjoy it.

Stuart answers your emails...

Got a question for Stuart? Email him at skysportsclub@bskyb.com or use the feedback form below...

Stuart, What youngsters would you like to see going to Argentina? Also what are you looking for and/or expecting from England ?
Charlie Prince

STUART REPLIES: Charlie, If Christian Wade is not in Australia he and Jonny May should be the Test wingers in South America. I would like to see Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser each given a test on the open side. They would be my immediate picks. I am looking for a game with more variety and fluidity and expecting a tough series which is precisely what these youngsters and players like Billy Twelvetrees need.

Hi Stuart, I see that the London Welsh Benefactor is withdrawing support now that they are relegated. A question I would have for the (now EX) benefactor would be: if London Welsh had done an Exeter and managed to get a good foothold in the Premiership, would he still think the Premiership finance rules to be wrong and would be still want them changed?
Steve Norman

STUART REPLIES: Steve, You really will have to ask the ex-benefactor that one yourself. I know what you are getting at but London Welsh were harried almost from the Premiership before they even kicked off. Sure, they made mistakes too but this is not a matter of black and white. One side's errors do not make the other side's shennanigans acceptable.

Stuart, how big a loss is Will Fraser be for Sarries if he is not fit? He was man-of-the-match in their quarter-final against Ulster and I was really looking forward to seeing him up against Steffon Armitage. I think Armitage is a classy player but I think Fraser is the future for England and would have shown his potential on Sunday.
Gavin Morten.

STUART REPLIES: Gavin, Fraser would be a loss; he is in great nick but such is the Saracens structure that replacements can fit in pretty seamlessly. The future for England? Here is one question. Put Matt Kvesic in the Saracens team and Will Fraser in Worcester's - who makes the greater impact. I happen to think Kvesic is ahead of Fraser at the moment which is not denigrating your man but extolling the virtues of Kvesic who has been outstanding in difficult circumstances.

Hi Stuart, I think the Lions may struggle in OZ because our game produces kicking stand-offs. All quoted candidates like Sexton, Farrell, etc pose no threat as runners which means it is easier for opposition to defend. When defences face Carter or Cooper they need tightly marked or they will run and hurt you. Australian pitches encourage a more expansive game and we don't have a John or Bennet.
Malcolm Wright

STUART REPLIES: Malcolm, Sexton does not run? Or pass, or create holes... I suggest you watch the back catalogue of Leinster games for the last few years and watch his performance in victory at Cardiff for Ireland this season. Your argument is holed at source.

Comments (5)

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Tom Curran says...

Hi Stuart, Can you explain to me why the argument for leaving Wilkinson at home seems to revolve around his presumed unavailability for the initial squad departure (Toulon still have a semi-final to win), yet his team-mate at Toulon Gethin Jenkins is a near-certainty to go? Is this Gatland demonstrating an inherent bias towards the Welsh players he inevitably knows better than the rest of the squad? It seems even harder to justify given that Sheridan, another Lions-qualified prop, has been keeping Jenkins out of the Toulon team for the whole season and therefore would be a far more justifiable inclusion, especially when his history of terrorising Aussie front rows is also considered. I for one will be extremely angry to see Wilkinson excluded if Jenkins is picked, it smacks of hypocrisy. I understand the "no French" principle, but Phillips will go, Hook may well also go and Jenkins is a clear tourist - no Wilkinson, Sheridan, Hines, Armitage, the French-based tourists seem to skew very Welsh.

Posted 11:36 27th April 2013

Leigh Rogers says...

Stuart you are dead right with your response to Malcolm. We have great creative players in the middle. BOD, Sexton and Jonathan Davies are all highly imaginative and put them together with North, Tuilagi and Roberts, that is a great recipe for success. I must also pick up on Alan's point about Croft being overated. Take a look back at the last lions series!!! # class

Posted 14:28 26th April 2013

Steve Norman says...

Hi Stuart, thanks for the reply. I agree that London Welsh have been treated badly and I do feel the system is too heavily biased towards The Rugby Establishment, especially the funding. However, if I won the (EURO!) lottery at the weekend and started funding a big dream, I would be under no illusions that my pockets would need to be deeper than anyone elses for a longer time. The rules need changing, but I'm not holding my breath. Regards Steve

Posted 16:57 23rd April 2013

Emmet Gunn says...

Dear Stuart, I noticed the fact you didn't even mention the probability of Ian Madigan starting ahead of Jonny Sexton. Madigan is seen as a possible Lions bolter as a utility back and has been watched by Gatland in previous weeks. He wasn't even mentioned in Will Greenwood's hilarious wildcard list. You have to check out footage of this guy playing, easily the best running flyhalf in Europe. He has scored more tries than any other flyhalf in europe this season and his goal kicking success is higher than Sexton with 86%. Trust me you have to consider this guy!

Posted 19:09 22nd April 2013

Alan Andrews says...

Stuart, not sure how much Pro12 you watch, but i think Iain Henderson at Ulster is the best young player i have seen in many years. Power, pace and a great brain for a 20 year old. While he still has a way to go, he could be a great outside bet for the Lions - albeit in a strong department. He is already a more complete player than the overrated Croft.

Posted 12:59 22nd April 2013

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