Munster scrap hard but Clermont land the telling blows at Thomond

Munster lose at home to leave European hopes on a knife edge

Munster’s Denis Hurley and Pat Howard tackle Aurelien Rougerie of  Clermont Auvergne during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Munster’s Denis Hurley and Pat Howard tackle Aurelien Rougerie of Clermont Auvergne during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Munster 9 ASM Clermont Auvergne 16

Clermont Auvergne just provided a lesson to others on how to stack Thomond Park. The first French club to win in Limerick , they made Munster rely on their weaknesses by targeting their strengths.

Sounds easy, it was as brutal as it was effective.

Ian Keatley admitted as much afterwards. “They beat us up, but it was still only seven points difference in the end.”

Munster must return the favour next weekend, at the currently impenetrable Stade Marcel Michelin, or their European aspirations will surely be dead before Christmas.

“But every team is beatable,” was Keatley’s upbeat refrain.

Peter O’Mahony always seeks early confrontation; it’s what makes him such a warrior, game after game. Clermont’s pack, now coached by Jono Gibbs, were so clearly waiting. Fritz Lee had a fantastic night but the Samoan number eight escaped a sending off after landing two hammer blows to the Munster captain on nine minutes.

It was reminiscent of when Jamie Cudmore targeted Paul O’Connell in the corresponding fixture in 2008. That time O’Connell at least got a few bullets off while the Canadian lock was red carded to O’Connell’s yellow. This time O’Mahony had his jersey flipped over his head and landed a single defensive dig.

The cameras missed all of it. He shook himself and soldiered on. It was undoubtedly a night for the greasy, mud splattered trench fighter.

A night O’Mahony was made for.

Cudmore hit him late on 48 minutes. He took an age to get up and was blowing diesel for ages, with O’Connell taking over the show, until he could motor again.

Nor was it a night for Ian Keatley to be off target. He wasn’t. That’s not a weakness anymore.

Clermont laid down a more important tactical blow within 57 seconds when Lee exposed the vacant short side off a lineout maul after Noa Nakaitaci gathered Camille Lopez’s kick-off. Ludovic Radosavljevic’s clever chip forced Felix Jones into touch near his try-line.

Clermont’s power and technique delivered the five points.

Munster were blessed that Lopez, employed to clean up the occasional Brock James nightmare off the tee, missed the conversion and two more shots at goal in the opening 40 minutes. He did, however, land a peach of a drop goal to put the visitors 16-6 ahead at the turn.

The other try was finished by Wesley Fofana, who fended off O’Mahony after Lee’s half break and brilliantly disguised offload.

There were tons of handling errors, uncharacteristically by Simon Zebo and the otherwise superb Conor Murray, but at least the loss of Dave Kilcoyne, to a knee injury, was compensated by James Cronin’s bullish arrival.

The scrum broke even while the lineout was an unholy mess.

All told, Clermont looked the more powerful and certainly dangerous side in open play with Fofana and Nick Abendanon’s counter attacking ability putting some doubt in Munster’s clear plan to kick long.

What made it such an enjoyable game though was Clermont’s attitude.

Remember they ended Leinster’s two-year period of European dominance at this juncture in 2012.

They sought a tempestuous affair. Munster responded in kind.

The problems stemmed from Munster’s inability to keep a grasp of the greasy pill. As O’Connell attempted to crank the maul into gear on 53 minutes, Cronin spilled the ball. Clermont scrum in their own 22. Lopez eventually cleared.

Fofana was beautiful in the rare patches he did get on the ball. Zebo, in his even rarer cameos, tried to spark a revival but it wasn’t a night for the ninjas.

Keatley eventually reduced arrears to 9-16 on the hour mark. But Clermont have been here before, and lost, they have learned from the definition of insanity (repeating the same mistake over and over again). They wore down the opposition with their enormous bench.

Alexandre Lapandry, Vincent Debaty and Davit Zirakashvili all made telling defensive impacts.

Of course, it ended as it always will in Limerick. Munster fought to the death. O’Connell, O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Cronin, Keatley, Zebo, O’Connell again queued up to carry ball.

The last fling was a lineout maul, five metres out, as the clocked ticked towards 80 minutes.

Damien Chouly stole Duncan Casey’s throw from O’Connell’s grasp.

The better team won. Now, in eight days time, how deep can Munster dig enough to save their season?

Scoring sequence – 1 min: F Lee try, 0-5; 14 mins: I Keatley, 3-5; 20 mins: W Fofana try, 3-10; 25 mins: I Keatley pen, 6-10; 30 mins: C Lopez pen, 6-13; 33 mins: C Lopez drop gl, 6-16. Half-time. 60 mins: I Keatley pen, 9-16.

MUNSTER: F Jones; G van den Heever, P Howard, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Casey, BJ Botha; D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: J Cronin for D Kilcoyne (12 mins), J Murphy for G van den Heever (58 mins).

ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: N Abendanon; N Nakaitaci, A Rougerie, W Fofana, N Nalaga; C Lopez, L Radosavljevic; T Doingo, B Kayser, C Ric; J Cudmore, S Vahaamahina; D Chouly (capt), J Bonnaire, F Lee.

Replacements: A Lapandry for J Bonnaire (61 mins), J Davies for N Abendanon (61 - 69 concussion check, for N Nalaga), V Debaty for T Domingo (65 mins), D Zirakashvili for C Ric (70 mins).

Referee: W Barnes (England).

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