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Tony Ward: Heroic display can be platform for bright future

Before the ecstasy comes the agony. So it was for the first generation of Munster's Heineken Cup warriors and that's how it will be for this group now.

Final defeats in 2000 and 2002 paved the way for what followed in 2006 and 2008 and while losing on Saturday in Montpellier was 'only' a semi-final, the hurt will register with a side of which only two – Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara – have experienced what the losing process is all about.

That might offer little solace after what transpired against Clermont, but again, even in defeat, it was a Munster performance in Europe that made you proud to be Irish. Over the 80 minutes, the better side, enjoying the bulk of possession and the majority of field position, got the win that their dominance deserved. However, it was anything but comfortable for the tournament favourites.

This was the giant doberman chewing his bone with the gutsy terrier wrapped around a bit of gristle and holding on for dear life. And the longer it went on, the more the likelihood of the terrier taking the bone and all away.

Aside from the opening and closing minutes of the first half, it was Clermont in control and playing with that offloading swagger that is their trademark.

Contrast that with the faces and body language of the same expensively assembled players as the contest moved towards its conclusion. The French were rattled – on the field and off. I don't know about you, but with just six points in it and Munster gaining late momentum, I had visions of another miracle finish.

Alas, it wasn't to be, and a Munster squad shed unashamed tears at the end of another proud, if ultimately disappointing, journey.

This semi was always going to be about the collective and so it came to pass as none were found wanting.

That, in itself, is huge progress and despite a frustrating season for Rob Penney in the implementation of his idealistic plan, he is much better positioned to attempt a more tailored version next season given his experiences this term.

Outside of Clermont, Leinster still possess the most complete unit in Heineken Cup rugby. I love what Leinster under Joe Schmidt has come to represent, but equally – and I am not alone in this – Munster, and the way in which they go about their business, manages to replicate Leinster in a very different way.

Although they may not admit it, even the most blinkered Leinster fans have a soft spot for Munster, particularly on big Heineken Cup days such as this. How could it be otherwise? And if it is to be O'Gara's last hurrah at this level, then what a way to go. Along with Conor Murray, the Munster halves were courageous in their game-running, kicking and decision-making.

The post-match pictures seemed to indicate a potential retiree who has made up his mind. My advice would be to hold fire, let the dust settle and see how the body and mind is fixed come August. The Munster experience is special. It will be a long time finished and Ronan knows that better than any.

We can bitch all we want about Nigel Owens and the forward pass that wasn't. Sometimes you get those calls, sometimes you don't. It didn't decide the outcome, but Clermont's classier, more skilful, more powerful dominance of the football did.

Yet Munster were in there scrapping at the death. You cannot put a value on that precious battling quality. It is why the nation has taken Munster to its heart.

A piece of silverware may have been lost, but a tradition was enhanced and a new generation of Munster rugby players from Dave Kilcoyne to Felix Jones added immeasurably to their rugby education.

Journey over, heads held high, much learned but so much more to do.

Irish Independent