Munster mug Clermont with pair of late tries

Munster 23 Clermont Auvergne 13
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The Independent Online

Late tries by Marcus Horan and Niall Ronan kept Munster's Heineken Cup hopes alive in a great finish to another epic occasion at this old, if rebuilt ground. The champions looked beaten as a 14-man Clermont Auvergne side dominated the second half, but with their traditional refusal to bend the knee, Munster landed an extraordinary victory.

Munster's failure to capitalise on their first-half dominance in France last weekend, as well as an underwhelming performance here against Montauban in the opening match, had made this the tournament's drowning pool. Mix the champions' delicate position with Sale's astonishing bonus-point victory at Clermont and the French club's undoubted ambition and you could sense before kick-off that this was likely to be another defining moment in Munster's story.

Other than the hooker Jerry Flannery returning following a knee problem, Tony McGahan stuck to the selection that lost in France last week. His opposite number, Vern Cotter, came with a reconstituted pack and if the France wing Aurélien Rougerie's absence was a blow, Clermont's strength in depth allowed them to bring in the promising Fijian Napolioni Nalaga. A place was also found for the experienced back-rower Elvis Vermeulen.

It seemed as if Clermont had the wherewithal to become the second side, after Leicester last year, to win a Heineken Cup game at Thomond Park. They owned the ball and bristled with intent during the opening 10 minutes and Munster were pinned in their own half. Even the ultra-reliable Doug Howlett wasted valuable possession early on, when he kicked a ball straight into touch from a promising attacking position. It was that sort of occasion. Nearly 15 minutes had gone before Munster found themselves in enemy territory, and Ronan O'Gara's penalty attempt drifted wide.

By that stage the contest had been bruising, but not over the top. Then Clermont's intent spilled over into naked aggression. The referee, England's Chris White, had awarded Munster a penalty when a scuffle between Paul O'Connell and Jamie Cudmore developed into a full-scale punch-up, the second rows trading heavy blows. When the dust settled White decided, after consulting with his touch judge, that O'Connell was more sinned against than sinning. The home captain was shown a yellow card but Clermont's Canadian saw red. So, with only 20 minutes gone, Clermont were down to 14 men.

With the crowd in full voice – when O'Connell trotted to the sideline for his 10-minutes of penance he was greeted as if he had just scored the match-winning try – the game lost nothing in its physicality and the play swept from end to end.

O'Gara kicked a couple of penalties as the home team at last made inroads thanks to some spectacular, mazy running from the Kiwi centre Lifeimi Mafi. One elegant breakout by Munster's equally menacing full-back, Keith Earls, who combined with Howlett and David Wallace, almost brought the first try, but the overlap was lost when Flannery cut back inside. The breakthrough came just before the break when Clermont tried to disrupt a five-metre scrum. Wallace rescued the situation brilliantly and the No 8 was driven over from short range by Alan Quinlan to make it 11-3 at the half.

The depleted Clermont side could have folded, but they were magnificent in the second half, keeping Munster on the back foot with attack after attack. There was the muscular threat from a heroic seven-man pack and pace out wide from Julien Malzieu and Nalaga.

Twice Howlett had to get back to make last-ditch tackles, on Marius Joubert and Nalaga, and the scrum-half, Tomas O'Leary, smashed Benoît Baby when the centre looked certain to score.

The home's side's defence had been outstanding, but they were living a charmed life and it was no surprise when Malzieu swept past (for once) ineffective challenges, from Barry Murphy and Earls, to dot the ball down in the corner. James converted from the touchline and with 20 minutes remaining Clermont led 13-11.

It looked all over for Munster, as there was no let-up in the French pressure, but in one extremely rare visit to the Clermont half Horan, who had scored last week, finished off a sweeping attack. Then Ronan made the game safe with a marvellous kick and chase try which O'Gara converted, becoming the first man to score 1,000 points in the Heineken Cup. Munster, it seems, are just never beaten.

Munster: K Earls; D Howlett, B Murphy (P Warwick, 62), L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer, 73); M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes (T Buckley, 67); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan (D Ryan, 56), N Ronan, D Wallace (J Coughlan, 80).

Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; J Malzieu, M Joubert, B Baby (S Baikeinuku, 53), N Nalaga; B James, P Mignoni; L Emmanuelli, B Cabello (M Ledesma, 47), S Roux (D Zirakashvili, 47), J Cudmore, T Privat (capt; C Samson, 66), J Bonnaire, A Audebert, E Vermeulen (E Etien, 72).

Referee: C White (England).

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