Write off Munster at your peril! Once again they showed their true grit and determination in the final minutes to secure a 23-13 win over ASM Clermont Auvergne at a packed Thomond Park.
It was a victory that looked unlikely as time ebbed away and Munster trailed 13-11 thanks to a 60th minute Julien Malzieu try converted superbly from the touchline by Brock James. With about six minutes to go, the Clermont out-half had a gilt-edged opportunity to put further distance between the sides but was wide with a relatively straight forward drop-goal attempt. Paul O’Connell galvanised his troops who somehow managed to get themselves deep into Clermont territory and when Ronan O’Gara went right and wide that master poacher, Marcus Horan was on hand to scoring the crucial try.
O’Gara missed the conversion and with just three points in it, and given the quality of the French side, the capture of the re-start was vital. This was achieved with a superb take from Niall Ronan who moments later orchestrated a chip ‘n chase that saw him get the touchdown. This time O’Gara made no mistake while also making history as the first man to take his points tally in the competition past the 1,000 point mark.
Just as important as that missed Brock drop goal effort was the tackle made by Tomas O’Leary on Benoit Baby at a time when Munster were under enormous pressure and leading by six points. Baby split the defence and looked certain to score under the posts until O’Leary – without the slightest regard for his own health – clattered the centre with a try-saving, possibly match saving hit that forced the Frenchman to retire injured.
Right from the kick off, Clermont gave the clear impression that they hadn’t come to Thomond Park just to make up the numbers but their cause certainly wasn’t helped when Jamie Cudmore’s series of uppercuts on Paul O’Connell ended in a red card for the Canadian. O’Connell got yellow for retaliation only after he’d been clipped by Cudmore for the fourth or fifth time but shortly after he returned to the fray, Munster scored their first try, David Wallace driven over the line by back-row partner Alan Quinlan.
As they had done a week earlier, the French side took control of the leather right from the re-start forcing Munster into desperate defence. Two James penalties had them just two points behind when Malzieu brushed off two tackles to score his try and Munster hearts missed a beat more than once as their side clung desperately to keep themselves in contention.
Hearts missed a beat when O’Gara was wide with a long range penalty but to their eternal credit Munster held their nerve. Keith Earls and David Wallace crossed the gainline with precious few minutes remaining to set up the field position for that late gallant effort.
Munster: K Earls; D Howlett, B Murphy, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt), A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Replacements: D Ryan for Quinlan (56 mins), P Warwick for Murphy (62 mins), T Buckley for Hayes (67 mins), P Stringer for O’Leary (73 mins), D Fogarty for Flannery, J Coughlan for Wallace (both 79 mins). Not used: K Lewis. Sin-binned: O’Connell (19-29 mins).
ASM Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; J Malzieu, M Joubert, B Baby, N Vonowale Nalaga; B James, P Mignoni; L Emmanuelli, B Cabello, J Roux, J Cudmore, T Privat, J Bonnaire, A Audebert, E Vermeulen (capt). Replacements: M Ledesma for Cabello, D Zirakashvili for Roux (both 46 mins), S Bai for Baby (53 mins), C Samson Privat (66 mins), E Etien for Vermeulen (72 mins). Not used: J Senio, G Esterhuizen. Sent-off: Cudmore (29 mins).
Referee: Chris White (England)