For the second time in this campaign, Ian Keatley delivered the telling kick right at the death. Against Sale in round one he had sealed an improbable come from behind victory with a brilliantly executed drop goal.
Yesterday in France there was no win but an awful lot could ride on Keatley’s last-kick penalty, and the converted Duncan Casey intercept try that preceded it. They delivered the losing bonus point that was the minimum his side needed to stay alive in Pool One and give hope they can somehow progress to the knockout stages.
Munster will have to go and win at Saracens in round five in January with a home game against Sale to finish but if they manage to find a way out of this group they might well look back on this unlikely point as the catalyst.
Despite being outplayed for long stretches and cut apart by a wonderfully accomplished Clermont attack for three tries, the fact the French giants were unable to securing a try bonus point of their won in victory will further add to Munster’s satisfaction on a weekend when Saracens also failed to score four tries in beating Sale.
It was still not the historic first victory here Munster craved but after losing in such a disappointing fashion in Limerick eight days previously, Anthony Foley’s side will take anything they can get.
Having failed to deal with Clermont’s lightning start at Thomond Park they did not repeat their failures in the deafening atmosphere of Stade Marcel-Michelin, signalling their intent with plenty of hustle, Simon Zebo quickly on Noa Nakaitaci’s case and Tommy O’Donnell securing a turnover from Aurelien Rougerie.
The marked improvement in intensity got its reward with a penalty five metres inside Munster’s half and such was the confidence coursing through the team that Keatley pointed to the posts and his right boot sent the ball between them for a 3-0 lead in the fourth minute.
Munster tails were up and a stolen lineout by Dave Foley led to more territory and possession in the Clermont half with Keatley showing variety in game management and JJ Hanrahan causing problems on his outside shoulder with a couple of incisive runs. But for all Munster’s creativity they were still struggling to make it count.
Keatley added a penalty in the 10th minute but it should have been five points rather than three as Hanrahan’s break sent Felix Jones to the line and Munster retained possession there, eventually creating an overlap for Zebo that looked a gilt-edged try in the left corner until Rougerie intervened, darting off his line to flatten Keatley as he was about to get the killer pass away.
Referee Nigel Owens went back to an earlier infringement from Clermont and Keatley slotted the penalty from in front of the posts. But a 6-0 lead should have been more and Munster were made to quickly made to pay.
Camille Lopez was the spark, the fly-half making a glorious break through midfield, offloading to full-back Nick Abendanon in a wonderfully flowing move that deserved better than to have Benjamin Kayser on the end of it, the hooker undoing all the good work by passing straight to Munster’s Jones.
Back came Clermont though and this time the Munster defensive wall crumbled, Jones missing a tackle on Thomas Domingo in his 22, Wesley Fofana making another incision before recycled ball found captain Damien Chouly and he crashed over for the try. Lopez failed to convert but added a penalty eight minutes later to push Clermont in front at 8-6 after 25 minutes as Munster began to start unravelling a little at the breakdown.
The bright start had faded, not helped by any inroads they were making with turnovers being instantly ceded by loose kicking but they were let off the hook by a poor penalty on halfway from Morgan Parra two minutes before half-time.
The scrum-half’s low and short attempt should have been an opportunity for Munster to start building for a score to close the half.
Instead it led to Munster allowing Clermont back onto the attack, Rougerie breaking down the left wing and leaving Andrew Conway for dead as Jones came across to make a try-saving tackle that led to an invaluable turnover. However, the subsequent kick to touch was run straight back by Nakataici and with devastating effect, the Clermont flyer carving a route through the Munster defence and turning Conway inside out for another great score, Lopez nailing the conversion to send the home side in 15-6 up at the interval.
From encouraging openings, Munster had ended the half looking in disarray despite enjoying 56% possession and it didn’t get any better after the break, despite an early Keatley penalty. No sooner had the fly-half closed the gap to 15-9 then Munster found themselves down to 14 men as Jones was yellow carded for crudely taking out Lopez after he had kicked ahead.
Surprisingly Clermont could not make their advantage tell, Lopez slotting the subsequent penalty but no more points accruing during Jones’s spell in the sin bin, the fly-half missing a further attempt after a Munster scrum infringement.
Jones’s return might have sparked another second-half revival but this time Clermont had other plans although there was a hint of desperation about the way they went about looking for the two second-half tries that would have delivered a five-point victory.
Fritz Lee spilled a pass on the line on the hour after Clermont had ripped through Munster yet again and it took a Lopez crossfield kick that found Chouly in the right corner seven minutes from time for them to finally get over the line, for the first and last time in the second half.
Lopez missed the conversion, Munster sensed an opportunity and Casey grabbed it intercepting a pass 15 minutes out to bustle over.
Keatley converted and then Clermont handed him a last, telling chance to get his team within the magic seven-point losing margin, conceding a breakdown penalty within range of the fly-half’s boot.
They’e not quite out of jail but Munster have at least a sniff of parole.
ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: N Abendanon; N Nakaitaci, A Rougerie (B Stanley, 59), W Fofana, Z Guildford; C Lopez, M Parra; T Domingo (R Chaume, 59), B Kayser (J Ulugia, 74), D Zirakashvili (C Ric, 69); J Cudmore (J Pierre, 74), S Vahaamahina; D Chouly — captain, A Lapandry, F Lee.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, A Smith (D Hurley, 79), JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo (J Murphy, 74); I Keatley, C Murray; J Ryan, D Casey, BJ Botha (S Archer, 74); D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony — captain, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander (R Copeland, 23-30 & 61).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).