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Munster face tough task in Champions Cup

Tricky.

The word that springs to mind when looking at Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup group.

Johann Van Graan’s charges come up against ASM Clermont Auvergne and a Harlequins side who have Jerry Flannery as part of their coaching ticket.

This year’s competition has been revamped as each team only plays four group games compared to six in previous years.

Munster, in Pool B and in Tier 2 of the rankings face two clubs from the same pool but ranked in Tier 3 based on the league finishes last season.

There will be no less of a challenge for the Irish province with home and away clashes against old rivals Clermont and 2013 quarter-final opponents Harlequins.

Realistically, Munster must win both their home games and secure an away victory to have any hope of progressing to the knockout stages.

Taskmaster: Johann Van Graan faces a tough group

They are not without hope as ASM Clermont Auvergne finished sixth in the Top 14 last season although the French league was not completed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Harlequins suffered a difficult Heineken Champions Cup campaign last year as they were knocked out in the group stages.

Munster also endured a poor campaign last season as they failed to progress to the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition for the first time since 2016.

Therefore, the Men in Red will be under pressure to perform at home and on the road this campaign.

ASM Clermont Auvergne possess plenty of threat attacking wise with Damian Penaud, who is currently nursing an ankle injury on the wing.

Wesley Fofana serves as a danger at centre, while new signing Kotaro Matsushima, who scored five tries for Japan at the 2019 Rugby World Cup adds even more threat to an already dangerous backline.

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Morgan Parra and Sebastien Bezy will compete for the scrum half position with Camille Lopez offering experience at flyhalf, while Rabah Slimani and Sebastien Vaahamahina are part of a strong Clermont pack.

With Clermont forced to reduce their spending, they lost 18 players during the summer including full back Nick Abendanon with the French side shorn of experience.

Harlequins are a side in form as they reached the Premiership final, ultimately falling to Sale Sharks at the final hurdle.

With the new Premiership season not due to start until late November, their squad is likely to change before they kickstart their European campaign.

English prop Kyle Sinckler has left Harlequins and joined Bristol Bears while former England captain Chris Robshaw is now playing for Major League Rugby side San Diego Legion.

Chris Ashton joined Harlequins in March while South Africa centre André Essterhuizen will add some physicality to midfield.

The English side also possess plenty of experience with Mike Brown and scrum half Danny Care in their ranks.

With fixture dates to be confirmed in the weeks ahead the work starts now for Munster and Johann Van Graan.

There is no doubt that this is a difficult pool for Munster but with the hurt of last year’s European exit still fresh on their minds, this is an opportunity to atone for past failings and ensure they give themselves every opportunity of reaching a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final.

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