On Saturday in the south of France, Clermont – 30 points the better team – found themselves praying for the final whistle and playing out of fear rather than confidence. It was an astonishing afternoon in a wonderful stadium packed with loyal and knowledgeable rugby supporters.
The Munster fans were crammed into a corner at one end of the ground, but they got full value for money as they were witnesses to a fightback that almost snatched the most unlikely of victories.
In the post-match disappointment, it was not surprising that Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell might have got the analysis wrong. The players regretted what they saw was a slack start. In truth, that was not the case. Munster were simply dragged hither and thither across the pitch by a French team playing sublime continuity rugby for the first 20 minutes.
The first try was a product of the strategy that coach Vern Cotter had promised last week, when he said his team would run Munster ragged. And ragged the red defence was as Keith Earls and Simon Zebo were left chasing shadows as their opposite numbers ran angles and lines beyond their comprehension.
For the try, Earls was 60 yards off station, leaving three opponents in space. As the Munster wing despairingly scampered back cross-field he found himself facing Napolioni Nalaga, who had appeared like a pirate ship out of the fog. Earls was running latterly, so Nalaga disdained a three-man overlap and went off his left foot to score, leaving the Munster man grasping at thin air.
At the end of the first quarter, Clermont were 13-3 ahead and then promptly changed the game plan. The high-octane, quick offloading was still there but the attack was up and down rather than over and back. As long as tackles were made the defenders could cope and Earls stayed out wide. However, whether at wing or centre, Earls' inability to choose the right position to defend will stultify his career.
Testing an inferior team's willpower rather than their talent is not smart rugby and Cotter's team played into the hands of one of the bravest and most committed teams in world rugby. With every passing minute, O'Connell added to his score as next Lions captain. As at the Stoop, he was backed up by another display of control by O'Gara, who kicked his team into position and drove them forward at every opportunity.
O'Connell was correct to suggest that his team did not take their chances. They had two major opportunities to fashion a victory, at the end of both halves. Sadly, Conor Murray was at fault on both occasions. On the stroke of half-time, his forwards were camped on the French line and he persisted with repetitive drives by the forwards when it was obvious that the defence was coping. In similar circumstances, Morgan Parra always varied the point of attack.
With three minutes to go in the match, O'Gara found touch in the corner from a penalty kick and a Munster rolling maul beckoned. This time Murray did not trust the pack, he broke off too soon, was isolated and dispossessed. Brock James' clearance gave Munster a chance to start again but Damien Varley overthrew and the chance was lost.
The issue of replacing the hooker has bothered me for some time. The newcomer invariably makes a mess of his early efforts at the line-out. On Saturday, Benjamin Kayser was magnificent and replaced for no apparent reason by Ti'i Paulo, who promptly had his throw snaffled by Peter O'Mahony. The resultant attack led to a kick by Felix Jones to the corner, which almost led to a decisive try for Munster.
Mike Sherry may have been carrying a knock when called ashore by Rob Penney, but the difference between Munster's No 2s is their ability to hit a moving target at the line-out. Kicking coaches are all the rage in rugby. A fortune awaits the guy who can solve the throwing problems for the provinces and the national team.
The accepted wisdom was that Munster had to get in front and hang on for the last 20 minutes. Astonishingly, it was the French who were biting their fingernails as Parra missed a kick that left just six points between the sides.
Understandably, the visitors went for bust and a converted try, but a series of successful Munster rucks in front of the posts offered the chance of a drop goal. The possibility was rejected but a three-point difference with time remaining on the clock would have created panic in the French ranks.
Munster demonstrated that pride in the jersey, faith in one's team-mates and courage above the norm can cover a multitude of deficiencies. It should also show that captaincy, now almost a forgotten art in rugby, has a crucial role. Perhaps central to that discussion will be just how much O'Gara still has to offer at club and international level. Those factors allowed Munster to take a vastly superior force to the wire.
Munster went from bottom qualifiers to within inches of an appearance in the final in Dublin. Fiction writers John Grisham or Jeffrey Archer would have had them there but sport is cruel. Hopefully, Penney has learnt his lesson and next year we will see a Munster team playing to its traditional strengths rather than aspiring to some South Pacific game alien to their natures.