Although they were beaten 26-19 in Stade Marcel Michelin, Munster emerged with a losing bonus point that could ultimately prove a most valuable commodity.
As defeats go, not the worst. Munster not only got out of jail yesterday but somehow emerged from the furnace that was the Parc des Sports Michelin with a bonus point.
They spent large tranches of this game on the back foot, seeking to repel a potent, fired-up Clermont side intent on inflicting the utmost damage, and many a side would have buckled, but Munster dug into their bottomless well of spirit to earn a point that leaves them just about with their heads highest above water in the shark-infested Pool Five.
Clermont were excellent and looked as unbeatable as you’d expect from a side completing their 26th win in succession at home, the sequence dating back to two seasons ago and averaging four tries and 35 points per game.
Benefiting from a dominant scrum, smooth lineout and rapid-fire quick ball from their strength in the collisions and ball presentation, as is their custom, les jaune et bleu played with superb depth and width.
Initially they probed a stretched defence up the middle before then going to the powerful Julien Malzieu on the left, though less so to Aur?lien Rougerie on the right, and mixing it up cleverly thereafter.
There didn’t seem much Munster could do about it, but perhaps they could and should have gambled a bit more by taking more space in midfield, where they stood back a bit.
Two tries and 20-3 down, Munster rolled up their sleeves, threw their bodies into contact and the tackle, critically kept their heads as Clermont incurred three yellow cards, and rolled the dice, with the Lifeimi Mafi-Rua Tipoki midfield storming through the second half as they repeatedly tapped penalties and ran from almost everywhere. Others were immense too, such as David Wallace and Jerry Flannery; Donncha O’Callaghan tackled his socks off, putting in big hits to prevent offloads; and there were important cameos from the replacements, Tony Buckley and Alan Quinlan.
Clermont made a flying start, helped by a rash of missed tackles and missed touches by Munster. In the opening exchange, Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer, of all people, got in each other’s way from Julien Bonnaire’s high kick, Stringer knocking on. Anthony Foley missed touch, Mafi lost the ball in the tackle and their first scrum came under huge pressure.
Brave fringe defence and Clermont’s over-eagerness in standing up at the first put-in briefly calmed the storm, though O’Gara’s penalty also missed touch.
Munster’s one source of ball was the athleticism and hands of Mick O’Driscoll, and the officials having missed O’Gara fumbling Stringer’s pass, Flannery’s offload and Wallace’s rumble; Tipoki making an astonishing pick-up in flying into the ruck.
The chance was lost, but another O’Driscoll take and collapsed maul enabled O’Gara to open the scoring.
Still, Clermont kept probing, their runners ruthlessly targeting mismatches. Marcus Horan missed Marius Joubert up the middle before they tellingly went wide as Malzieu powered through first Shaun Payne and then Stringer on a remarkable rumble that had the crowd roaring.
Clermont hammered away before Pierre Mignoni sniped and took Foley’s tackle to reach out for the line and score, Brock James slotting the conversion.
A superb steal off the deck by Bonnaire maintained the momentum, and it didn’t help Munster’s cause that by now their scrum was in terrible trouble, John Hayes being turned by Laurent Emmanuelli and Horan being driven up by Martin Scelzo. Inevitable punishment came with a James penalty.
A rare sortie upfield and bout of continuity ended when Horan tried to force the pass in the tackle. Fullback Anthony Floch sidestepped Hayes up the middle and from further quick ball James spread the ball wide to Elvis Vermeulen, who was driven over the line but held up by Tipoki. Consolation came via another three-pointer from James for an earlier, harsh offside.
That was compounded when Malzieu again did the damage, popping up in the middle to demonstrate his strength in contact again. Mignoni drifted infield off the ruck and popped a delightful left-handed underarm pass for Mario Ledesma to take Wallace’s tackle and score, James again converting. Suddenly it was 20-3.
Realising they needed to make a serious dent on this scoreline, Tipoki and Denis Leamy took quick taps and Munster hammered away at the Clermont line at the end of the half. Twice rejecting penalties at goal, they could have no complaints when Rob Debney adjudged Wallace had crossed before Tipoki ran behind the posts.
And as impressive as their earlier potency was Clermont’s aggressive repelling of the siege, Horan being driven into touch by Malzieu and Mignoni after Loic Jacquet had been binned for killing ruck ball.
The half ended with O’Gara – head bandaged for a bad cut at the top of his right ear from an apparent stamping – obliged to take a 35-metre penalty.
Malzieu joined Jacquet in the bin for deliberately knocking on Tipoki’s looped pass to the wing after Foley had taken a quick tap up the middle. Munster could not make their two-man numerical advantage tell in the next six minutes, O’Gara curiously chipping behind the defence but into touch to let Clermont off the hook.
Clermont were soon on the front foot again, James inching them further ahead after Debney penalised Munster for bringing a maul down – a puzzling call from the English official given the maul was still standing.
Munster needed a break and one duly came nearing the hour mark. Doug Howlett, hitherto limited as to chances, pounced on a rare loose ball from a Clermont ruck to break away up the blind side and offload to Foley. In tandem with Buckley, who showed an impressive turn of foot, the pair took the play 60 metres, and helped by Stringer and O’Gara, somehow kept the ball alive to work it infield off the recycle, where Mafi straightened through an inviting gap to score, O’Gara converting.
The plot thickened by the second. Munster were long since engaged in the kind of helter-skelter they did not want as they chased at least a bonus point, and Clermont, mindful of their need to win with a bonus and deny Munster one, elected to go up the line.
Despite the home side’s reinforcements Munster – with Quinlan now in the fray – held the maul at bay and worked a turnover. Now it was Munster probing again, Alexandre Audebert seeing yellow as he blatantly punched Quinlan off the ball for O’Gara to make it 23-16 – bonus point territory. O’Gara added another when Debney bravely penalised Clermont for killing the ball.
But Clermont probed wide, through their maul, and then right again, Horan making a superb tackle on Benoit Baby for O’Gara to hack upfield, only for Howlett to tackle Floch on the ground. James landed the 45-metre penalty with seven minutes of injury time to go.
Clermont orchestrated a series of rumbles to set up James for a drop-goal attempt, and his attempt, the last kick, in the 49th minute of the half, from 40 metres and straight in front, hung in the air before sailing wide.
Munster: S Payne; B Carney, R Tipoki, L Mafi, D Howlett; R O’Gara, P Stringer (capt); M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll; D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley. Replacements: T Buckley for Hayes (58 mins), A Quinlan for Foley (65 mins). Not used: F Sheahan, D Ryan, T O’Leary, P Warwick, K Lewis.
Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert, S Bai, J Malzieu; B James, P Mignoni; L Emmanuelli, M Ledesma, M Scelzo; A Jacquet, T Privat; J Bonnaire, A Audebert, E Vermeulen. Replacements: S Broomhall for Bonnaire (43-46 mins) and for Vermeulen (65 mins), D Zirakashvili for Scelzo (47 mins), C Samson for Privat (61 mins), B Baby for Bai (67 mins). Not used: M Lozupone, J Senio, V Delasau. Sinbinned: Jacquet (40+4 mins), Malzieu (42 mins), Audebert (71 mins).
Referee : R Debney (England).