Category: Archive

Munster win riveting contest vs. Clermont with late surge

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Because even the most faithful on a freezing Limerick evening could see defeat creeping up on the champions when they trailed 13-11 with just a couple of minutes remaining. It wasn’t that Munster had played badly – in fact, it might just have been one of their greatest defensive performances – it was more that Clermont were positively heroic.
Reduced to 14 men after their Canadian second row, Jamie Cudmore, had been sent off for punching Paul O’Connell with only a quarter gone of what was a monumental contest, the French dug in with the sort of skill and ferocity normally associated with their opponents.
It seemed they would become only the second side to successfully storm the Thomond Park walls in a European fixture, and in truth, Munster’s defense of their title looked to be in tatters.
But then, the men in red have forged their reputations in situations of adversity. They surged up the pitch in one desperate, last-ditch attempt to rescue the match, and after keeping the ball alive for what seemed an age, Marcus Horan plunged over in the corner for the most important try of his career.
There were still four minutes remaining on the stadium clock, and every chance the raucous celebrations might be silenced by a penalty goal, however, after giving their absolute all, Clermont now had nothing in the tank.
Niall Ronan gained possession around halfway and with the cover for once scattered, he cleverly kicked ahead and with only the substitute prop, Davit Zirakashvili for competition, the openside won the race pretty comfortably. Ronan O’Gara lofted over the conversion to pass a personal total of 1,000 points in the competition, and the escape act was complete.
“It’s tough staring down the barrel of defeat,” said coach, Tony McGahan. “Huge credit to the players, tremendous belief. It comes with a lot of experience.”
Munster now top their pool and if they manage to beat Sale in Limerick, and Montauban in France in January, they will be assured of a place in the quarter-finals.
The opening phases of a riveting contest had been bruising, but in no way over the top, until a scuffle between O’Connell and Cudmore developed into a serious punch-up with both second rows trading heavy blows. That fight in turn became a general melee involving a number of players, and when the dust settled, referee Chris White consulted with his touch judge and concluded that O’Connell was more sinned against than sinner.
The captain was shown a yellow card for his troubles, but the colour brandished in Cudmore’s direction was red, and with only 20 minutes gone, Clermont were down to 14 men.
With the full house now in full voice – as the sin-binned O’Connell trotted to the sideline he was greeted as if he’d just scored the match-winning try – the game was to lose absolutely nothing in its physicality.
Munster then had a dominant spell coming up to the break which culminated in David Wallace being driven over by Alan Quinlan from a five metre scrum. At 11-3, you would have thought that they might go on and even pinch a bonus point, but the second half belonged to Clermont’s magnificent 14.
Where other sides might have folded, there was muscle, there was imagination and there was speed, as well as some astonishing home defense. Doug Howlett got back to make last-ditch tackles on Marius Joubert and the Fijian powerhouse, Napolioni Nalaga, and when Benoit Baby looked certain to score, he was smashed by Tomas O’Leary.
Brock James narrowed the gap with a second penalty, and then Clermont deservedly took the lead when Julien Malzieu swept past surprisingly ineffective tackles by Barry Murphy and Keith Earls to dot down in the corner. James converted imperiously and the French led 13-11.
Still, Clermont kept coming and even when James slid a dropped goal attempt wide of the posts, Munster remained corralled in their own half. The minutes ticked by and the dream of back-to-back European titles appeared to be over.
But there was more to come, much more. Peter Stringer arrived in place of O’Leary to whip out a series of lightning passes and Thomond exploded with joy and relief as Horan and Ronan killed off Clermont who left without the bonus point they richly deserved. Munster, it seems, don’t know when they’re beaten.
The same can’t be said for Leinster who slumped to a hugely disappointing 18-15 defeat at French club Castres. With tries by Girvan Dempsey and Jonathan Sexton on the board in the first half, Leinster appeared to be well in control of their own destiny, but they let the initiative slip and in the end, lost out to opponents who have no chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.
In that second half, Leinster appeared to be bereft of leadership with the likes of star players, Brian O’Driscoll and Felipe Contepomi, struggling to make any impact. They still lead the pool, but have to go to London in January to take on second-placed Wasps.
Ulster’s hopes of qualification were effectively over before their game in Wales against the Scarlets, however, they managed a 16-16 draw and were unlucky not to emerge with a morale-boosting victory. The impressive Ian Humphreys and Paddy Wallace scored the two tries.
Connacht remain on course to qualify for the last eight of the European Challenge Cup following their 30-3 bonus point victory over Italian side, Rovigo, in Galway. Frank Murphy with two, Adrian Flavin and Andrew Farley crossed for tries.

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