In a wonderful contest made even better by the colour and pageantry of the rival fans, the only silence on the day came when Clermont captain Julien Bonnaire addressed the massive Clermont hordes, ten minutes after this Heineken Cup semi-final.
His message was clear: all roads lead to Dublin. With 23 planes already on standby before Saturday’s semi-final win, Ballsbridge had better ready itself for a Clermont invasion.
The Munster players, who typically gave everything to the cause, were disconsolate on the final whistle. With less than three minutes left on the clock, they had an attacking lineout within ten metres of the Clermont line, trailing by just six points. If they were offered that scenario before this game, they would have taken it with open arms. In the end, it just wasn’t to be. Clermont were the dominant side throughout, but they have become accustomed over the years to the doggedness of Irish sides who simply refuse to lie down in the face of the blue and yellow juggernaut like so many of their French opponents appear to do.
This is a developing Munster side who displayed all the traditional characteristics and fighting qualities when the need was greatest. Their Rabo form has been disappointing this season but for this young pool of players, Europe is where it’s at.
There has been sufficient evidence on offer over the course of the knockout stages to suggest that Munster have every right to aspire to European greatness once again. The monumental strides taken by Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Stephen Archer, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones in recent months suggest that the mantle has already been passed, with Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara more than willing to give these guys their heads.
As always with Munster, the drama started long before the kick off. Describing it in advance as the biggest challenge he had faced in a Munster jersey, even O’Connell felt the pressure coming into his one. What we didn’t know at the time was the pressure on him was even more intense as his very participation in the game was compromised early in the week due to a groin strain.
We have become used to rumours flying around on the eve of Munster games over the years. But O’Connell was doubtful right up to kick-off and had to satisfy himself that he was fit to go after conducting his pre-match warm-up. Tentative to the point where he called just a single lineout on himself in the opening half, it was up to others to lead the charge.
Clermont’s edge in the key platforms of scrum and lineout in the early exchanges handed them the initiative from the outset, yet Munster rode the storm and if they had converted a clear try-scoring opportunity on the stroke of half-time, who knows what might have happened.
A Clermont turnover right under their posts rescued a very dangerous situation but it was manufactured in the most dubious of circumstances. Referee Nigel Owens seemed to offer every marginal call the way of the French and after the fallout from Munster’s recent encounter against Leinster, with Owens also in control of that one, it may have been a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Munster were adamant after the game that the alleged forward pass from O’Connell, who stormed into the game in the second half, at the death with a big overlap out wide was a very harsh call.
That Munster finished the game with seven of their starting pack despite the fact that O’Connell hadn’t trained all week and Donnacha Ryan has managed just one game — the quarter final at the Stoop — since the end of the Six Nations speaks volumes for the resilience and doggedness of that unit. Only Damien Varley was sprung from the bench, yet they were still applying pressure in the final ten minutes despite the fact that Clermont had introduced five fresh forwards, including four internationals, over the course of the second half.
What cost Munster in the end was a lack of composure in attack. They just found it impossible to break down a very disciplined and well drilled Clermont defence up to the point when O’Gara’s latest exquisite grabber sat up brilliantly for Denis Hurley to score in the corner. With 20 minutes to go, Munster were offered a lifeline. You could visibly see the Clermont players scratching their heads in wonder at just what they had to do to rid themselves of this latest Irish irritant.
For Munster, an incredible Heineken Cup campaign has ended in defeat, but not despair.
And all this after they started the campaign rather sheepishly, losing a game away to Racing Metro they really should have won when their lack of experience and composure cost them dearly. To recover from that to the point where they were within three minutes of winning the semi-final with a converted try says everything about the journey they have undertaken. It will stand to them.
The much famed previous generation of Munster stalwarts had many stutters on the road to glory and with an injection of one or two players this group are also capable of competing at the business end of this tournament for many years to come. Finances will play a big role in that. Unfortunately, the coffers are pretty empty at present.
Clermont have no such worries on that front and now find themselves within touching distance of a first ever Heineken Cup. As Munster found out over the years, bitter disappointment creates such a manic desire for success that it drives you on to greater things. Clermont coach Vern Cotter encapsulated that feeling when he articulated before their quarter-final win over Montpellier that there hasn’t been a day since that crushing defeat by Leinster in Bordeaux last year that he hasn’t thought about that match.
One ventures to suggest that after yet another searching test against a quality Irish side, they will be thrilled not only to have made it through to a first ever decider but that they can travel to Dublin with a sense of relief that there will be no Irish opposition there to meet them. What they will find however is plenty Irish support. They have earned that over the last few years.
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