Heineken Cup Semi final: Stade de la Mosson, Montpelier
By Stephen Brunsdon
A clinical first half performance and frightfully impressive defensive second helped Clermont Auvergne reach their first Heineken Cup final; despite a spirited comeback from Munster. Heavy favourites before the competition began, les jaunards made light work of their previous opponents in the run up to the last four. However, the “never say die” attitude from Munster made sure the French side had to sweat it out till the very end in a pulsating encounter.
The game had “test match” written all over it. High stakes and even higher tension, enough quality players on each side to make a world XV and the best home and away supporters in Europe. Montpelier was buzzing from as early as 2 hours before kick off. And add to that, the quality and intensity of the match itself, this was an encounter one could not possibly miss.
Munster, heavy underdogs who were missing All Black Doug Howlett, began nervously from the kick off, Felix Jones getting run into by Paul O’Connell on receiving the ball. A wayward kick from Simon Zebo did not find touch and Clermont began to launch their first attack. The mercurial Brock James chipped a lovely ball back into the Munster 22 before Ronan O’Gara found a safe touch to calm Irish nerves.
After some early pressure, the Munster pack found their feet at ruck time, while Clermont went off theirs, giving away a cheap penalty after a powerful rolling Munster maul. O’Gara duly converted and against most odds, Munster were ahead 3-0 after 5 minutes. If the resulting restart showed us anything, it was that when Clermont get stung, they respond twice as hard. A hanging drop out was knock back into the arms of Damian Chouly by Wesley Fofana and Clermont surged forward. Quick ball from Morgan Parra put them on the front foot and only a man on ball tackle from Keith Earls stopped an overlap being exploited. The pressure continued however as Nalaga burst through the ruck and took the Frenchmen up to within 5 metres of the try line.
More quick ball and some beautiful offloading from Regan King and Chouly bamboozled the Irish defence and despite a pass going to ground in the next passage, Fofana basketball passed to Napolioni Nalaga who checked inside Earls to score under the posts. The crowd erupted in typical ASM style and Munster, after only 7 minutes must have felt like they were hiking the Massif Central with skis on. James converted to make it 7-3.
From then on it was all Clermont; they dominated up front and with their ever efficient line out ball (Bonnaire majestic as ever) the silky backs punched holes in the Munster defence. Munster to their credit held on firmly, but just about and created some of their own opportunities. Once again, Clermont were pinged at the breakdown and gave away another penalty. O’Gara pushed the ball deep into the French 22, but a knock on from a set piece play was the end of their one and only chance in the first half. Clermont continued to bash their opponents and as a result, were rewarded with 2 penalties before half time
Clermont were comfortable throughout the match and despite conceding a try in the second period and defending vigorously in the last 10 minutes; nothing in their demeanour showed that they were about to cough up another chance to reach their first European final. The backline was sublime for the duration, both in attack and defence, with Regan King throwing some ridiculous offloads and the sparkling feet of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Nalaga proved more than a handful on the wings. Up front, number 8 Damian Chouly was impressive, showing the flair and power that has epitomised the jaunards in recent times.
Munster were defiant as always, and as out of sorts and flabbergasted as they looked in the first half, they never lost heart and battled all the way to the end. The boot of Ronan O’Gara got them of most trouble, both from hand and from the tee. His territorial kicking was the key to getting past the mighty Clermont defence and it worked brilliantly. After Parra kicked Clermont further in front (16-3) after 47 minutes, Munster looked, on the scoreboard very much the beaten side. But following some incredible defence to stop another Clermont charge close to the line (which included a heroic tackle by Felix Jones on Fofana barely yards out), Munster began to believe once more.
As 10 minutes later, they had further cause for belief. A line out on the Clermont 22 was safely secured, and once the maul had been taken down, the ball was spread to Felix Jones who skilfully cut back inside and trundled on forward. Quick ball was then given to O’Gara who, in taking the ball right up to the line drew in Nalaga and Byrne. A perfectly weighted chip bounced kindly for the chasing Denis Hurley who dotted down in the corner. O’Gara then cemented the start of the comeback with a brilliant conversion from the touchline.
The last 3 minutes were frantic and were a demonstration of why the Heineken Cup is one of the greatest club sporting events in the world. From a line out on the Clermont 22m line, Munster drove the French pack backwards and set up seemingly their last opportunity. And a diamond one at that. Five metres out and scrum half Conor Murray tried to sneak through a gap only to lose the ball in contact. Brock James cleared a Clermont were off the hook momentarily. However Munster, knowing a converted try was needed, ran the ball from their own 22. Jones feeding Hurley who raced up to the half way line. Under a minute remained and their was a clear red overlap on the far side. The ball had to go, and was going wide, only for a forward pass called by Nigel Owens against Paul O’Connell all but put an end to the Munster challenge for another year. A barraging scrum that set the tone all day resulted in one final penalty for Clermont. They and their 30,000 passionate followers erupted with joy as they finally beat their demons.