2009/10 Heineken Cup Preview: Biarritz vs. Munster
The only team in the final four not to have won a Heineken Cup will welcome a Munster side that could well lay claim to being the prominent specialist in European competition.
This is Munster’s 12th straight appearance in the finals, and on nine of those occasions has played in a Heineken Cup semi.
No matter what their condition, form or squad strength, the two time champions always seem to find another gear when it comes to the grandest stage in Europe, and this was shown emphatically when they defeated arguably England’s strongest team Northampton 33-19.
Biarritz, who have not won a Heineken Cup, did reach the final in 2005/06, but lost 23-19 to a Munster team who had already had two previous attempts at claiming the crown (losing to Northampton in 2000 and Leicester in 2002).
The proud Basque based French team, who finished seventh in the Top 14 narrowly missing finals qualification, has been a dominant power in Europe for some time, having won three domestic titles from 2002 to 2006. This game will be the chance for the South Western French side to truly announce themselves on the global stage and become just the third side from France to win a Heineken Cup.
For if the red and white-clad Frenchmen are to win the Northern Hemispheres highest honour and etch their names into the history books, than nothing would be more fitting if they were to go through Munster in the penultimate round.
But this is easier said than done.
Munster will arrive in Donostia-San Sebastián without Paul O’Connell, a hammer blow to the Red Army, but will present a far different challenge than Biarritz’s vanquished quarter final opponents Ospreys.
Biarritz, who typically base their game around a strong set piece, will find the Irish pack are far more intimidating proposition that the Ospreys. The Welsh side, while star-studded in the pack, showcased most of their threat via their glittering backline.
Trying to play an up tempo game, Biarritz, with a patient pragmatic strategy and the kicking boots of Damien Traille and Dimitri Yachvili, were able to hold off the challenge of the sole surviving Welsh region, even if it was by the thinnest of margins.
Munster will not waste their time with petty attempts to engage Biarritz in a game that suits them, and while the Ospreys tried to be flamboyant, few teams in the world can grind like the famous Irish province.
The visitors, while likely to rely on a no-nonsense approach geared around their pack and the boot of Ronan O’Gara will still be able to mix it up, as shown when they roared to life against the Saints via an early Doug Howlett try.
Biarritz will be without the services of veteran Les Bleus back Damien Traille, a big loss as he provides not only physical presence, but one of the more educated boots in France.
He kicked three drop goals against the Ospreys, and such a weapon will be sorely missed.
However, the return of arguably the best number eight in world rugby Imanol Harinordoquy is a tremendous boost, as is fact that test prop Fabien Barcella is again buttressing the Biarritz scrum.
The French will have to decide on the makeup of their midfield as well, with rumours that former Brisbane Bronco Karmichael Hunt could play at 10. This would give the Basque based team a formidable defensive and running aspect from the halves, but would weaken their kicking game.
Munster, without O’Connell, will still field a powerful squad, with Keith Earls, Doug Howlett, Ian Dowling, and Nick Williams all passed fit.
Who will march on Paris to meet the winner of Toulouse and Leinster?
2 May 2010, Biarritz Olympique v Munster @ Estadio Anoeta, Donostia-San Sebastián
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Previous Heineken Cup meetings
(Date - Stage - Home - Score – Away)
Sat 20 May 06, Final, Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque 19 - 23 Munster
Sun 3 Apr 05, Quarterfinals, Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque 19 - 10 Munster
Sun 28 Jan 01, Quarterfinals, Munster 38 - 29 Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque
Backs: Tomas O'Leary, Peter Stringer, Ronan O'Gara, Paul Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi, Jean de Villiers, Tom Gleeson, Doug Howlett, Denis Hurley, Ian Dowling, Keith Earls, Scott Deasy.
Forwards: Marcus Horan, Tony Buckley, Julien Brugnaut, John Hayes, Damien Varley, Jerry Flannery, Mick O'Driscoll, Billy Holland, Donncha O'Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Nick Williams, James Coughlan, Niall Ronan.
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