Trailing by 17 points with just seven minutes left on the clock after Clermont captain Damien Chouly registered his second and Clermont’s third try of the game, it seemed inevitable that the hosts would press on and claim the bonus-point fourth try. If that were to be the case, it would have done scant justice to Munster’s efforts in very demanding circumstances.
What we do know about Munster over the years is that they never give up. To somehow summon the energy to register ten points over that closing period and return home with a losing bonus point was a monumental effort.
Quite what it means to their efforts in advancing from this truly challenging pool will only become apparent next month, but at least it offers them a lifeline. Playing Saracens away will not faze this group of players in the least and with the possibility of two sides progressing, it now appears to be a shootout between Munster and Mark McCall’s men for second spot. Clermont are virtually assured of top spot.
If Munster were feeling the pressure after that rare Thomond Park defeat last week they showed no signs of it with a massively positive opening quarter which saw them race into a six-point lead. To win on occasions such as this you must show intent. Clermont had it last week, Munster needed to find it this time out and managed to do just that.
Fritz Lee admitted in the aftermath of their ground breaking win in Limerick that “we had great energy in training all week and we were wound up for that game”. On the assumption that the roles would be reversed this week, I couldn’t wait to see how Munster would set about blunting the Clermont challenge on this occasion.
They achieved that by playing with a new found width to their game, with both Felix Jones and Simon Zebo seeing far more ball in the opening period than they saw throughout the entire 80 minutes in Limerick. There was also a better shape to Munster in midfield, with JJ Hanrahan offering an additional kicking option and the returning Andrew Smith bringing a greater presence to proceedings.
Speaking to Jonno Gibbs on the eve of the game in Clermont, the biggest worry for the former All Black on the back of their magnificent forward effort last week was the strong possibility of his side switching off mentally. While there was evidence of that early on, the attacking threat of the mercurial Wesley Fofana was proving Munster’s biggest issue.
He has magical feet and is a joy to watch. He floats and has the ability to make front five forwards look silly with the ease with which he glides past them.
During the week Conor Murray craved a strong start that would give Munster extra belief to succeed in such a testing cauldron. They achieved just that but undid much of their good work by missing crucial tackles at vital times, none more costly than the concession of a try to Fijian winger Noa Nakaitaci on the stroke of half-time.
That was a killer blow and Munster were culpable in the build-up by not learning from their earlier mistakes. On every occasion that Munster failed to bury touch kicks into the stand, Clermont responded by taking quick throws to launch the counter-attacking threat of a lethal back three in Nakaitaci, Nick Abendanon and Zac Guildford.
When Zebo repeated the error when clearing from deep in his in-goal area just before the break, Clermont countered once again. But they closed the deal this time, with Nakaitaci being offered far too much space. It was a killer blow given Munster’s efforts in that crucial opening half.
When Jones was yellow-carded five minutes after the break Munster had a mountain to climb, but somehow managed their way through that period by only conceding the three points that the penalty for Jones’ indiscretion yielded. That was an outstanding effort, facilitated, it has to be said, by some sloppy handling errors from Clermont.
The one area of advantage the home side carried through from the opening encounter was a dominance in the contact area, which saw Munster concede a multitude of costly penalties for not releasing in the tackle. Clermont were very clever in isolating the Munster ball carrier, forcing turnover or penalties for not releasing. It also killed their chances of creating any periods of sustained momentum.
In Limerick, Clermont’s approach was very transparent in that they set out to stop Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray having a controlling influence on the contest.
While they succeeded on that front first time out, all three had big games and that kept Munster in the contest for that losing bonus point.
A word too for Munster loose head John Ryan, who put in a massive 80 minute shift. While the pressure came on the Munster scrum — Clermont had the facility to replace four of their front five in the second half — Ryan had a marvellous opening half, winning a crucial penalty from the game’s first scrum.
That settled him down no end and he also tackled and carried with great effect despite having had only 20 minutes experience of performing at this level of rugby spread out over the last two seasons.
Losing to this Clermont side in this arena is no disgrace. The margin for error may well be gone at his stage but at least Munster’s closing efforts keeps them in the hunt, with the focus now shifting to that all-important visit to London against Saracens in the New Year.
With Leinster having scraped through by the skin of their teeth against Harlequins on Saturday, Irish interest is extended on two fronts into the final two rounds in January.
With just a single point now separating Harlequins, Leinster and Wasps — and Quins enjoying the better head-to-head against Leinster by outscoring them on the try count over their back to back contests — there is a real danger that two sides could advance from Pool 2, and Leinster may not be one of them.
Given that this pool is lacking any meaningful French challenge, it would be a disaster for Leinster not to advance. Their inability to convert try-scoring opportunities is now becoming a real problem and the confidence and composure we associated with Leinster in recent seasons is dwindling despite the fact that the vast majority of their squad achieved great things for Ireland last month.