Take Toulon in Sunday battle
In profit in each of his last three previews, David Gee brings you his best bets for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals.
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The Heineken Cup is down to the final four and two fascinating ties await punters this weekend - Clermont take on Munster on Saturday evening in Montpellier while Saracens face Toulon at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon.
Clermont booked their spot in the semi-finals by beating Montpellier relatively comfortably at the beginning of this month while Munster sprang a surprise by beating Harlequins at the Stoop the day after. Toulon were made to fight harder than many thought against Leicester in France but Saracens had an easier task in dispatching Ulster in their quarter-final.
- 2.75pts Munster (+13) to beat Clermont at 10/11 (Stan James) - It's difficult to see Munster win this one but the experience of Paul O'Connell could inspire another battling performance.
- 3pts Toulon to beat Saracens at evens (General) - The French side are superior in almost every area of the pitch and look the value.
While you won't find many punters who think that red-hot favourites Clermont will be turned over by Munster on Saturday evening, the layers have dangled a carrot in front of their customers by making the French side the 13-point jollies.
Munster have had a very poor season by their own high standards and their domestic offering has been so bad that they have even failed to qualify for the Pro12 play-offs. However, here they are on the brink of a Heineken Cup final. They are the only semi-finalists not to have won their respective pool and on all known form deserve to be the outsiders of four to lift the trophy.
Yet I still think you can make a strong case for backing them on the handicap this weekend. Experience counts for a lot in this tournament and Munster certainly have that in the shape of Paul O'Connell, whose presence inspired Rob Penney's men to a famous victory. The fact that O'Connell is playing again this weekend cannot be seen an anything other than a positive for Munster this weekend and he will be a pivotal player once again.
Contrast this with Clermont's fortunes and you begin to see why Munster may have a squeak. They will be without their skipper, Aurelien Rougerie, this weekend due to a thigh injury, while the loss of Gerhard Vosloo at flanker is another big blow.
Clermont will start as heavy favourites for this game and they haven't lost a Heineken Cup match so far this season. Nevertheless, it is very rare that semi-finals are one-sided, especially against a Munster side who have the ability to change tack and play physically should the occasion arise.
Munster have made just one change to the starting line-up that ran out for the quarter-final win over Quins. Keith Earls is fit again and comes onto the right wing in place of Denis Hurley, who rides pine on the bench. It's Earls' first outing for Munster since the Racing Metro game in January and his first competitive match since the Test against Italy five weeks ago.
It's difficult to see Munster go all the way to France and get a victory with thousands of screaming Clermont fans in attendance in Montpellier, but they can certainly give their opponents something to think about and 13 points looks a little big given the occasion.
While picking the winner of the first semi-final looks fairly straight-forward, the bookies can't split the sides in the other game as Saracens take on Toulon in the battle of the big-spenders at Twickenham.
This match is being billed as England's future against England's past as fly-halves Owen Farrell and Jonny Wilkinson go head-to-head but it is so much more than that. In one corner, we have Saracens' steady but steely resolve and a South African efficiency which is so difficult to breakdown. In the other, we've got Toulon who have strength-in-depth in every position and the stats to back it up.
Toulon are superior at the scrum and the breakdown, have a superior tackle rate and their prowess in attack is frighteningly good. The only danger in this game is that both sides cancel each other out and we get a tense, nervous affair that ends up being a poor spectacle. Such is the attacking nature of both sides though that it's impossible to see anything other than a thoroughly entertaining match.
Either side could win. However, given Toulon are superior in almost every area of the pitch, it's difficult to see why they are not slight favourites. Hence, the even money that is generally available about a Toulon victory is definitely worth a wager. If one side is going to win this easily, then it's the French outfit and I think they can reach the final.