Clermont hold off brave Munster in Montpellier
French side glad to hear final whistle after epic European encounter
Clermont Auvergne’s Napolioni Nalaga scores his side’s try during the Heineken Cup semi-final at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Clermont 16 Munster 10: In many, many ways this was a better Munster performance than their epic quarter-final win against Harlequins. The Stade de la Mosson throbbed to one of those vintage Heineken Cup meetings of French and Irish superpowers and by the end you could almost smell Clermont’s fear as Munster came in search of an improbable win.
For much of the first hour especially, Clermont had attempted to batter Munster in submission, with the force of their scrum, their superior lineout, their power in the collisions, the depth of their running, their slick handling and off-loading. Yet despite an ominous early breakthrough and being pinned to the ropes, there Munster were, still standing and still fighting at the final bell.
Their resilience, their scrambling defence and their willingness to have a go – they played with a far broader brush than in The Stoop – saw them respond with a try by Denis Hurley which was wonderfully created and converted on the hour mark by Ronan O’Gara in his and Munster’s 10th Heineken Cup semi-final.
They couldn’t quite manage their greatest ever win, but there was nothing but pride in their performance amongst their faithful at the end of a thrilling 80 minutes, every one of them compelling.
A major Heineken Cup occasion involving Munster almost wouldn’t be complete without a morning rumour spreading like wildfire before the game, and while, as is often the case, they turn out to be false, there had been genuine concerns about Paul O’Connell’s fitness.
It transpired that Munster’s inspirational captain had suffered a groin injury last Monday and although scans revealed nothing untoward, he was sufficiently incapacitated not to train all week, and only proved his readiness for battle in the warm-up.
His absence would have denied the 25,000-strong Yellow Army a pantomime villain. Having been whipped into a frenzy by Midi Olimpique especially, Clermont’s supporters interrupted the raucous if good-natured pre-match chanting by roundly booing when O’Connell’s face appeared on the big screens during the players’ introductions.
And so, heavy morning rain having given way to a belatedly pleasant but still breezy and chilling evening, the scene was set amongst a riotous mix of the Yellow and Red Armies. The latter did their best to provide hearty renditions of The Fields in amongst regular chants of “Ici, Ici, c’est Mont-ferr-and” and “qui ne saut pas n’est pas Auvergnat.”*
The 5,000-plus Munster fans were given early encouragement by a strong first Munster scrum and a good touchfinder by O’Gara, and then a lineout maul was brought down for O’Gara to bisect the posts from 40 metres.
However, O’Connell clearly was nowhere near full throttle and such was his limited impact that it was only when he engaged with Nigel Owens early in the second half that that the Yellow Army had an opportunity to boo him again.
O’Connell couldn’t gather the ensuing restart down the middle and it was brilliantly retrieved by Julien Bonnaire to immediately put Clermont on the front foot inside the Munster 22.
The ensuing phases possibly contained a hint of holding on and obstruction on O’Gara, but there was no denying the power, pace and handling ability of the Clermont backs; a one-handed offload by Regan King to Sivetini Sivivatu illustrating the point before Napolioni Nalaga straightened through Keith Earls’s flailing inside arm despite a big overlap to score under the posts from Wesley Fofana’s basketball style one-handed popped pass.
Parra converted and tagged on a couple of penalties, the first understandably bemusing Peter O’Mahony who certainly appeared to be legally contesting the ball on his feet, but the source of the second excited Clermont’s fans as much as their try; a steamrollering lineout maul which a retreating Munster were probably relieved to bring down.
Munster were on the ropes already, with Clermont perhaps one more punch away from a knock-out blow already. Les jaunards looked to strike stealthily from some costly turnovers earned by their physicality in the collisions, their scrum cranked up a gear, Nathan Hines stole a Munster throw aimed to Donnacha Ryan at the front and Casey Laulala twice shot up to prevent overlaps.
There was also turnover penalties, one for stamping by Jamie Cudmore which ought to have seen yellow before he departed injured, and another brilliantly won by Mike Sherry from a Benjamin Kayser pick and go. And after Sivivatu came off his wing to break the red line Earls was on hand to deny Nalaga another try from Brock James wicked chip.
Of moderate encouragement was that there was no further damage on the scoreboard before half-time, and Munster finished the half on the Clermont line with a series of close-in charges before what must have been an illegal steal which Owens didn’t see, after Earls was released by Felix Jones for a kick and chase up the line. But had it been rewarded with points, Munster would have skipped off in better heart.
A brilliant take by Conor Murray and a perfect grubber which bounced favourably short of the corner flag, but a loose Murray pass had Simon Zebo tackled well behind the gain line and O’Gara overcooked his next grubber to the corner.
In two salvoes either side of the interval, championship minutes, Munster had come away with nothing and it felt even more decisive when Parra landed another penalty when Sherry was pinged for going off his feet, though Clermont might reasonably have conceded one for going off their feet.
The Yellow Army bellowed out Les Marseillaise, but no less than their fans, Munster weren’t quite done yet; not by a long shot. O’Connell made his first charge of the day, and bravely they kept charging into a seemingly impenetrable white wall, O’Gara again taking recourse to a delicate chip to the corner, before an even more deft grubber – after Jones had made the initial inroads – was gathered to touched down by Denis Hurley, who had replaced Earls. O’Gara’s superb conversion even made it a one-score game. Cometh the hour, literally, cometh the man.
Clermont responded with another Sivivatu break, as he fended off a despairing O’Connell, but Munster scrambled resourcefully again and after Parra missed a scrum penalty, O’Donnell picked off a loose Nathan Hines offload to kick downfield. The wholehearted O’Mahony made their first lineout steal of the day and Nalaga dallied almost fatefully from Laulala’s charge as Jones came close to making the touchdown.
O’Gara put Munster in the corner with a long penalty to touch but, one maul having been repelled, substitute Damien Varley’s throw was fractionally too high for Ryan to gather in and the match finished with a questionable forward pass against O'Connell before Clermont’s final scrum saw out the game.
Moments later, a tearful O’Gara, in what may have been his last game, was consoled by Ryan’s bear hug before the rest of his team-mates consoled him. Both teams went to their fans and both, certainly, were entitled to.
Poignant, epic, great game and wonderful occasion.
Scoring sequence: 6 mins O’Gara pen 0-3; 9 mins Nalaga try, Parra con 7-3; 14 mins Parra pen 10-3; 17 mins Parra pen 13-3; (half-time 13-3) ; 48 mins Parra pen 16-3; 60 mins Hurley try, O’Gara con 16-10.
ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE:Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire (c), Julien Bardy, Damien Bardy. Replacements: Alexandre Lapandry for Bardy (57 mins), Vincent Debaty for Domingo (62 mins), Noa Nakaitaci for King (64 mins), Ti’i Paulo for Kayser (69 mins), Clement Ric for Zirakashvili (78 mins).
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell (c), Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan. Replacements: Denis Hurley for Earls (51 mins), Damien Varley for Sherry (57 mins).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
* This article has been amended to correct an error