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O'Gara stands tall as dream ends

SURELY the most poignant image from Saturday's extravaganza in France was the sight of Ronan O'Gara cradling his eldest son Rua as he and his Munster team-mates soaked up the acclaim of their supporters as they, in turn, paid tribute to the efforts of the fans.

O'Gara's tears at the dagger through the heart that was Nigel Owens' final whistle immediately dried on seeing his son.

The accompanying smile shone with the heat of a supernova and helped to lift the pall of gloom that enveloped the Munster team.

The first words exchanged on being reunited were: "Are you tired?" Rua nodded, but neglected to query his father's own energy levels.

O'Gara was excellent. His performance didn't quite hit the heights of that second half in the Stoop when Harlequins were put to the sword, but he wasn't afforded anywhere near the same platform against Clermont.

Aggression

The French side bring an intimidating aggression to bear. They are hugely physical beings, exceptionally well drilled and it is testament to O'Gara's enduring excellence that he was able to carve out the opportunity for Denis Hurley's 60th minute try.

Saturday's outing marked the 36-year-old's 110th Heineken Cup fixture. It is a truly remarkable achievement. As are the 1,365 points he has accumulated. Only he knows whether he will be return to this stage.

For certain, Munster want him to commit for another season, but if that was his swansong, he left with his reputation secured and possibly enhanced.

When Munster needed a leader, they turned to their talisman. He was clinically calculating and composed as he opened their account with the game's first three points after just six minutes.

However, Munster were nearly overrun for the next 30 as Clermont took control. When Napolioni Nalaga stepped inside the covering tackles and took the whole Munster defensive unit out of commission on his way to touching down, there was a real fear the floodgates might be about to open.

Clermont sought to turn the screw and kept pinning Munster into their own '22' but the Irish defence refused to buckle under the enormous pressure.

With the try-line denied them, Clermont relied on the boot of Morgan Parra and the French international didn't disappoint, with two penalties before the end of the first quarter.

That they couldn't put Munster away, spoke of the enduring appeal of Munster's players, who were as intransigent as ever as they simply refused to concede an inch. Instead, they rose defiantly to eyeball the team who are clearly the stand-out unit in Europe this season.

And the more frustrated Clermont became, the more determined grew Munster. When Hurley touched down with 20 minutes to go, nervous faces among the Clermont supporters and players were evident as they surely recalled all those times they had been denied during their manic quest for their first Top 14 title.

Munster's players sensed a weakness in their psyche and sought to exploit it as they charged at them with a frenzy that was inspiring.

They played as if their lives depended on it and asked questions of Clermont, whose rugged defence deserve much credit for keeping them out.

It is, however, only right to suggest that Munster were denied more than once by poor refereeing decisions from Owens.

His afternoon was summed up in his next-to-final act when he called play back for a perceived forward pass from O'Connell as the Irish side were gearing up for one final assault on the French battlements.

The look of incredulity on O'Connell's face captured perfectly what he thought of Owens' decision. Video review of the pass to Ryan incontrovertibly proves O'Connell's disbelief at being called back was justified.

Clermont won a penalty from the scrum and Brock James brought the game to a close by booting the ball into touch immediately.

It was a cruel way for the game to end and the defeat will surely leave a sour taste, but Munster will inevitably come to look upon their Heineken Cup saga this season as a positive experience.

The immediate feeling is one of disappointment, of course, for the manner of their defeat was devastating.

This was a game they could have won and the opportunity lost will haunt them for some time, despite the fact that they were second best for much of the game.

Their spirit ensured they were within a favourable bounce of the ball of securing the winning score after Laulala had kicked to the Clermont line with 10 minutes left to play.

Had the ball bounced more kindly for Felix Jones, it was surely a game-winning try.

Deep as the wounds were in the immediate aftermath, however, coach Rob Penney used the spirit of the performance as a balm to soothe the wound.

"It's just heartbreaking for me to see the devastation in them coming into the changing room when but for a couple of little moments, just tiny things, we would have been on the other side of the ledger looking at a great day in the Aviva," he said.

"But that's part of being a sportsman and part of the growth process of developing resilience, because the reality is these boys will be around for a while and play in a few more of these things, hopefully.

"The grail is within their grasp and they've just got to keep fighting for it."

Heroics

Penney's words of comfort won't be lost to his charges and surely neither will their own heroics in a creditable defeat.

Clermont are a magnificent team. They have been threatening to make a breakthrough in Europe for some time and a place in the final this season was almost inevitable given their relentless march into the semi-final as the only team with a 100pc record.

They will now surely go on to win the final – their first – and fulfil what is seen by many as their destiny.

Critically, they know that they have earned their place after a punishing battle with one of Europe's biggest names.

The positive for Munster is that theirs is a team that is quite obviously still evolving and what they have is courage in abundance and a collective team spirit that successfully carried them through the shark tank that was their qualifying pool, despite losing twice. And, let us not forget, they accounted for the competition's most prolific team in Harlequins in their quarter-final.

The younger players have shown a sensitive appreciation of what wearing Munster's famous red shirt means and, on this day, proved possession of it is their birth right.

Clermont are absolutely deserving finalists, but, through their battle, the Munster legend also grew substantially in a melodrama that that was so absorbing as to leave even the supporters spent.

No wonder young Rua was shattered tired.

CLERMONT – L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King (N Nakaitaci 63), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 58), B Kayser (T Paulo 68), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 78), J Cudmore (J Pierre 38), N Hines; J Bonnaire, J Bardy, D Chouly (A Lapandry 56).

MUNSTER – F Jones; K Earls (D Hurley ), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (D Varley 69), BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O'Connell, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.

REF – N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent