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Brave Munster go down fighting


Paul O'Connell is tackled by Wesley Fofana during yesterday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier.

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Wesley Fofana during yesterday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier.

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Wesley Fofana during yesterday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier.

A brave Munster effort came up just short against Europe's finest team as Clermont Auvergne moved to within 80 minutes of becoming the first ever side to lift the Heineken Cup with nine straight wins.

Early on it seemed as if Munster would be wiped away by the juggernaut from Michelin country but by the end it was Clermont who were burning rubber.

Despite being second-best for much of the contest Munster made Clermont battle to the death and will take comfort from the fact that heart-breaking defeats have always preceded their moments of glory in Europe.

Pre-match rumours that Paul O'Connell was going to be ruled out with a hip injury proved unfounded and his arrival on the field for the warm-up saw him greeted by a lengthy chorus of boos from the Clermont supporters, who outnumbered the visitors by four to one on the terraces.

Munster needed an early boost and they got it from a Ronan O'Gara penalty on the left wing after six minutes, following a good drive off a lineout. But the joy was shortlived as Clermont took control and took the game to Munster with an awesome show of strength.

They responded to the concession of the early penalty by pouncing on a loose ball from the restart after O'Connell failed to hold possession and did not leave the danger area until Napolioni Nalaga had touched down beside the posts – a series of bursts saw Wesley Fofana pick out the Fijian with a pass and he stepped inside Keith Earls to score.

Morgan Parra added the points and then pushed Clermont 10-3 in front after 14 minutes with a penalty from 45 metres. He added another four minutes later after a great drive off a lineout down the right and at 13-3 it seemed they would build an unassailable lead.

Munster just could not build any phases as Clermont pounced around the fringes and tackled everything in sight. Unsurprisingly, Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore were never far from the activity when it was being put up to Munster with both, as usual, living on the edge.

A promising Clermont move after 27 minutes was called back when Cudmore was penalised for an off-the-ball infringement but, while Munster relieved their lines, it wasn't long before they were back inside their '22' defending.

There was a left-off for Munster when Brock James knocked on after intercepting a long pass from O'Connell but Munster grew in confidence as they dealt more favourably with the Clermont surges.

Cudmore was forced off, none the better of a hefty challenge in midfield from Dave Kilcoyne, and Munster held their line until the break.

Indeed, they finished the half on the offensive, but while they turned over a kick and chase from Earls down the right, the province were unable to add a score before the break and they turned around trailing by 13-3.

Munster started the second-half as they had finished the first but while they mounted a series of attacks inside the '22', they were once again unable to get a score and Clermont hit back and extended their lead.

Hooker Mike Sherry was penalised as Munster kept a good surge at bay and Parra added the penalty to make it 16-3.

But Munster refused to be subdued and they showed all their experience to build the phases and take on Clermont. The back row of Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and James Coughlan had a big impact as Clermont were forced on the back foot.

Munster got the break they craved on the hour when O'Gara sent a sublime grubber into the right corner, which sat up perfectly for replacement Denis Hurley to dive over. O'Gara added the difficult conversion from the right and suddenly the margin was back to 16-10.

Clermont responded immediately with another wave of attacks but could not find a way through, and when Munster conceded a penalty Parra pulled it across goal from the left with 12 minutes left.

Straight down the other end, the television match official was called into action when a Casey Laulala caused mayhem but Felix Jones was unable to get his hands on the ball and Nalaga was relieved to see it bounce away from the Munster full-back.

Munster came with one more late effort, a penalty from O'Gara finding touch 15 metres from the Clermont line but, while O'Mahony won the lineout, they were unable to drive forward and Clermont cleared to secure their first Heineken Cup final place.

It won't ease the disappointment of the loss, but on an evening in the south of France when they gave enough indication that they could once again be a force, Munster left Montpellier with their heads held high.

Scorers – Clermont: N Nalaga try; M Parra con, 3 pens. Munster: D Hurley try; R O'Gara con, pen.

Clermont: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King (S Nakaitaci 63), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 61), B Kayser (T Paulo 68), D Zirakashvili (R King 78); J Cudmore (J Pierre 38), N Hines; J Bonnaire, J Bardy (A Lapandry 56), D Chouly.

Munster: F Jones; K Earls (D Hurley 50), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (D Varley 56), BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent