Not quite a miracle match to add to Munster folklore but what heart they showed in all but reining Europe's heirs apparent, Clermont Auvergne, in an intoxicatingly colourful semi-final in Montpellier.
Clermont made it through to their first final, a year after a fingertipped fumble by Wesley Fofana denied them at this stage against Leinster, but Munster's dogged spirit was epitomised in the unyielding form of their captain, Paul O'Connell. Under the eye of Lions coaches Warren Gatland and Andy Farrell, the former Ireland captain had been close to missing the match, it emerged yesterday morning, after tweaking a groin muscle in a practice run on Monday. The need to stand down from training for the rest of the week took O'Connell's mind, he said, off the furore surrounding his escape from so much as a citing after kicking Leinster's Dave Kearney in the head earlier this month. "The injury took over for me, it was the main worry," O'Connell said. "The Leinster incident got a lot of coverage in France but I'd like to think it didn't affect me. The injury did."
Neverthless O'Connell, like six of his fellow Munster forwards, made it through a switchback 80 minutes that had Clermont seemingly home and hosed with a 13-3 lead at half-time. The French Top 14 leaders needed old fashioned forward grunt as much as any of their more alluring flourishes by the end despite the advantage of playing on native soil.
Ronan O'Gara, the Munster fly-half and the Heineken Cup's all-time leading points scorer by hundreds of points, went on a lap of honour with his son Rua at the end and many believe the dad to be close to retirement. His record 10th Heineken semi-final was lost, leaving Munster's titles of 2006 and 2008 further in the past, but a new team is emerging. Witness the back row Tommy O'Donnell, Peter O'Mahony and James Coughlan – inheritors of the legacy of Foley, Leamy, Quinlan and company – tackling brilliantly and forcing epic effort by Clermont at the breakdown.
O'Gara kicked an early penalty but Clermont's response was a try that summed up their dynamic, thoroughly modern game, played by a team mostly consisting of huge, mobile men who can all offload before or after the tackle. The 33-year-old O'Connell made a finger-in-the-dyke tackle on Sitveni Sivivatu that postponed the inevitable; the other wing Napolioni Nalaga eventually strolled dismissively past O'Gara near the posts for the ninth-minute score that had begun with the Fijian making a barrelling run on the left. Morgan Parra, that bright-minded general with the cultured left foot, converted then swiped over a penalty from 45 metres and another from about half that distance for 13-3.
With O'Connell a little tentative, there were just minor bursts of Munster activity to lift their outnumbered support (it felt as if the Stade Marcel Michelin in Clermont had been uprooted, expanded and plonked a few hundred miles south on the Mediterranean coast).
The stumbles into unfulfilling cul-de-sacs included Conor Murray's short-side break ending with a mistimed pass to Simon Zebo, another Lions candidate forced to live on iron rations. O'Gara's short drop-out backfired when it was caught by Jamie Cudmore (who soon went off injured for Clermont, along with the centre Regan King), and though Munster's Mike Sherry effected a crucial steal at the tackle in his 22, Clermont did precisely the same up the other end to snuff out a rare Irish threat.
When Sherry was penalised for preventing release seven minutes into the second half, Parra's fourth kick out of four felt like the telling blow. But the miraculous tales of the All Blacks in 1978, and Gloucester in a Heineken pool more recently came to mind as Munster grabbed a try on 59 minutes. O'Mahony caught a line-out on the left, Felix Jones made a charge in the middle and all O'Gara's wiles went into a deft chip that made Lee Byrne turn and was latched on to by Denis Hurley, who had just come on for Keith Earls. The conversion by O'Gara left a six-point gap for Munster to chase.
And, yes the Clermont team described by O'Connell afterwards as "probably the best in Europe", wobbled. Twice. They eked a penalty out of Munster's BJ Botha for dropping a scrum but Parra kicked wide across the posts from the 22-metre line for his first miss. Then O'Mahony nicked a line-out off Julien Bonnaire, captaining Clermont in the absence of the injured Aurélien Rougerie, and on the opposite flank only a wicked bounce as Casey Laulala kicked through prevented either him or Jones scoring for Munster. The dawdling Nalaga was the most relieved man in Montpellier, because you wouldn't have bet against O'Gara landing the conversion.
Murray had one last dab off a line-out that ended with a forward pass before Clermont won another scrum penalty upfield and celebrated with equal amounts of ecstasy and relief. "We know Saracens and Toulon well," Parra said of today's other semi-finalists. "I don't care who gets through, we need to win the final."
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King (N Nakaitaci 64), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 62), B Kayser (T Paulo 69), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 77), J Cudmore (J Pierre 39), N Hines, J Bonnaire (capt), D Chouly, J Bardy (A Lapandre 57).
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (D Hurley 51), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (D Varley 57), BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, J Coughlan, T O'Donnell.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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