Clermont v Munster
Munster were massive in their quarter-final win over Harlequins at the Stoop. Their reward is a trip to France to play Clermont, albeit not at the imposing Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, where Les Jaunards have not lost for 59 games. They beat Montpellier there in the quarters, and ironically that is now where they have to stage the semis.
So the slightly more neutral venue will undoubtedly help Munster, but Clermont have already shown that they can win away from home this year – in fact, they are the only remaining unbeaten side in the tournament. They have been dealt a huge injury blow this week with the news that captain and club legend Aurélien Rougerie would be out – but no matter, they can call on Kiwi and former Scarlet Regan King, another outrageously talented player that is used to warming the benches in the Top 14. He partners the world-class Wesley Fofana in a mouthwatering midfield. Fly-half Brock James has recovered just in time, given that Mike Delany, the player signed as injury cover, is not registered for this competition. Up front, the imposing partnership of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore won’t take a backward step. Cudmore has a spicy history with Munster’s Paul O’Connell – anyone with a short memory, see the video below. They also boast, in Domingo and Kayser, two thirds of the French front row, who will be sure to test the Munster scrum.
Munster will look to O’Connell to lead them to another historic victory in this competition – his performance in the quarter-final was truly astonishing, and undoubtedly lifted the rest of the team to bigger and better things. He is missing partner-in-crime O’Callaghan, but Irish international Donnacha Ryan can step in and arguably would have started anyway. Old stager Ronan O’Gara leads the back-line in a key Heineken Cup game once again, and will be keen to prove that he still has something to offer after being widely derided in the Six Nations. The centre pairing of Downey and Laulala were exemplary in that quarter-final too, and if they can get on the front foot then Munster will be confident that they can cause an upset. They are missing their Kiwi talisman on the wing in Doug Howlett, but Simon Zebo can still provide plenty of magic if given time and space.
At the moment, Clermont are comfortably the best team in Europe and must be strong favourites to continue their European winning streak here.
Prediction: Clermont by 10
Saracens v Toulon
This game is likely to be closer than the other one. Two mammoth packs will collide, and it could well be down to how well Saracens cope if they can’t gain the upper hand up front as they are used to – something they have failed to do at times this season.
Toulon’s ridiculous grouping of Galacticos sees Steffon Armitage, Freddie Michalak, Jocelina Suta, Maxime Mermoz, Gethin Jenkins and Joe Van Niekerk all taking a spot on the bench. Matt Giteau was superb in the quarter final victory over Leicester, with his darting runs providing the perfect foil for Wilkinson’s stability and game management on the inside. Danie Roussouw gets a start on the blindside, with the athletic Argentinian Fernandez Lobbe moving to the openside, and All Black Chris Masoe at no.8. That is a back-row not to be messed with.
Saracens have an immensely strong squad too, however, and can call on the likes of experienced heads John Smit and Charlie Hodgson from the bench if things aren’t going their way. In the back-line Owen Farrell starts at fly-half opposite the golden boy of English rugby Jonny Wilkinson, hoping perhaps to steal his crown and in the process a spot on the Lions plane Down Under. Joel Tomkins has looked very threatening at times this season, and will hope to expose the brute that is Mathieu Bastareaud in defence.
Toulon’s squad is teeming with so much quality that, despite playing technically ‘away’, they will come into this as slight favourites. It is an incredibly tough one to call, and with two kickers as reliable as Farrell and Wilkinson, it could come down to smallest margins. Last minute drop-goal, anyone?
Prediction: Toulon by 3
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43