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O'Gara shows why he's still the master

With the clock showing red at the end of the first half in Montpellier last night, Munster were battering away at the Clermont line. Keith Earls had given them the position with a lovely chip into the French '22', and the pressure applied by the Reds regained possession and turned it into one of those game-shaping sequences.

If they could force their way over the line it would have shifted the scoreboard from 13-3 to 13-10, and the complexion would have changed as the teams went to the changing rooms. Instead they were knocked back. Game over?

Eh, not quite. In these pages last weekend Clermont's Lee Byrne described Munster as the kings of Heineken Cup rugby. No other side in the history of the competition has the knack of hanging in there when all the signs suggest they should be falling off the back. And no other team has been as comfortable in a winning position as Munster.

Clermont, for all their talent and strength in depth, are still a distance away from that point. Their contest against the winners of today's game between Saracens and Toulon will be their first European final. Munster were chasing a place in what would have been their fifth.

Their test of character last night came after Ronan O'Gara's perfect little nudge put Denis Hurley through to close the gap to six points in the second half. Clermont had a glorious chance five minutes earlier to put the game out of Munster's reach, only to end up knee-deep in trouble. For the last 15 minutes you could feel the tension seeping through Clermont ranks as they tried to regain control. What they needed was an O'Gara.

The scenes post-match, with the outhalf bringing his son onto the field for the walk around and salute to the fans, had a valedictory feel to it. "I dunno," he said afterwards. "It's not the time to be thinking about that."

If it was his last act in this competition then he would have rathered it was on a happier night, but his contribution could hardly have been more valuable.

Two examples: the first was his nerveless conversion of Hurley's try; the second was less obvious but not much less important. Having opened the game up again with the score, he had a penalty to touch that put huge pressure on him. Clermont were low on fuel, low enough to worry about having enough to repel a Munster maul from close-in.

Under that kind of scrutiny, some players default to safety and aim no higher than making touch with a modest gain in territory.

O'Gara loves those moments, when time stops and people tune in to see if he can deliver. His kick was inch-perfect over a distance of about 50 metres. Brilliant technique under intense pressure.

There wasn't any reference in the post-match interviews to the way the game ended, but referee Nigel Owens made a very bad call on pulling up Paul O'Connell for a forward pass, which allowed the French to close the game. O'Connell's pass found six Munster men in a space of 30 metres. Clermont had one. It would have been interesting to see how that one played out.

It was an inappropriate end to what had been an enthralling struggle, one which for an hour threatened to leave Munster for dead.

Although their personnel have changed dramatically from the days when they were dominating this competition, their suitability for the task hasn't altered at all.

Irish Independent