Clermont Auvergne kept their Heineken Cup dreams alive by notching up a highly impressive 25-19 victory over Munster in France on Sunday.
Clermont Auvergne kept their Heineken Cup dreams alive by notching up a highly impressive 25-19 victory over Munster in France on Sunday, blowing the reigning champions out of the water with a devastating spell of rugby in the third quarter of the game.
The visitors to Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin had silence the crowd by taking a 16-12 lead into the break, but Clermont showed their burgeoning pedigree by outscoring their illustrious guests 13-3 in the second half.
Clermont pivot Brock James supplied all his side's points with six penalties, a try and a conversion, but this was no one-man show. This win was built on devastating scrummaging (Munster lost one against the head!), the brains of Pierre Mignoni, sharp support play and a number of huge hits.
Munster will rue coughing up 18 points to penalties, and it's an issue they will have to address – less patient referees than Wayne Barnes might have left them without the numbers with which they manage to salvage an important bonus-point.
But that can't take away for what was a spectacular game of rugby, as gritty as yesterday's offering in Paris was flashy, and as controlled and cerebral as Bath's win was loose and fancy free. Variety is the spice of life and the glory of European rugby – no one-size-fits-all tactics on this side of the equator.
James opened the scoring with a well-struck penalty after six minutes, punishing Munster for some over-eager defence.
And an over-eager response also counted against the visitors, with Ronan O'Gara butchering a chance with an ambitious pass the bobbled directly into touch.
One can understand the motives of the Ireland pivot: Clermont's defensive line was up faster than a referee could say “back foot, please” – words which, strangely, were not utter too often.
But Munster are used to making their own luck, and some turn-over ball soon forced the French into an error, leaving the way clear for O'Gara to draw his side level via the tee.
A fine chase from Doug Howlett on a box kick immediately following the restart handed Clermont a new set of problems and they duly conceded another penalty. O'Gara backed himself to knock one over from almost 50 yards and his gamble was a good call. Suddenly, Munster had the lead.
James responded with a second penalty of his own moments later but it did nothing to stem Munster's growing confidence. Trusting their backline to spring a few holes between Clermont's colossal backs, the ball was moved wide at pace.
With the first raid rebuffed, the Irish forwards were forced to man the line, and how well they did.
Alan Quinlan drew his man before sending out the ball to his right. Two passes later and big Marcus Horan found himself playing the part of Howlett. Indeed, unversed French fans might have believed him to be the AB superstar after he straightened the line before jinxing outside the last defender to dot down – one-handed!
O'Gara converted the try before Brock replied with another penalty, but the red tide of Munster was rising all the time – Paul O'Connell almost dotted down a hack-through before a magnificent tackle from Julien Malzieu denied Howlett in the corner.
Munster finally settled for a penalty from O'Gara as the partisan crowd voiced their displeasure.
The vocal 'encouragement' focussed French minds and they put together their best attack of the half, but they could not fathom Munster's immaculate defensive lines, finally settling for a fourth penalty to Brock to leave the half-time scored poised at 16-12 in favour of the visitors.
Sensing the gravity of the situation, the locals exploded into the second half, forcing yet another penalty out of their guest. James called for his tee and slotted a beauty from 50 yards to reduced the deficit to one point.
With the crowd back in good voice, Clermont began to dance and Munster's miserly defence began to creak.
Some fine running forced a line-out on the Munster line that tied up the red jersies. The ball was then moved wide and James slipped two tackles before stretching over to score a try he duly converted.
Clermont's uprising rattled the champions – and it showed. As the drums beat, Irish passes began to go to ground and kicks were shanked into dangerous positions.
Things then went from bad to worse: a Munster scrum was lost against the head on their own line.
The indignity of it all actually caught the French backs off guard, and an easy chance went a-begging out wide. But Clermont still got some points from the raid, with James nudging over his sixth penalty.
The hosts were not yet done. Still they came, pulling Munster from side to side, smashing into would-be tacklers with a relish that bordered on the psychotic, egged on by their now-delirious fans.
A fortuitously timed bout of cramp for Ian Dowling allowed Munster to regroup and the message delivered by O'Connell to his battered troops was obvious: despite the lashings, 25-16 was still by no means a death knell – not for a team of Munster's standing, at least.
The call to arms stemmed Clermont's flow of points and eventually lead to Munster's first points of the half – a penalty to O'Gara that reduced the deficit to six points with six minutes left to play.
Munster threw everything at the final minutes of the game, with the rampaging Lifeimi Mafi at the centre of the storm.
The pressure got to Anthony Floch who sliced a clearance into touch to give the visitors a final bite at the cherry. Alas, it was not to be. The crowd erupted into cheers as their heroes gobbled up a loose pass before dispatching the potential bomb high into the stands.
Clermont live to fight another day – Munster will look for sweet revenge next weekend.
For Clermont Auvergne:
Pens: James 6
Pens: O'Gara 4
Clermont Auvergne: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 AurÃ©lien Rougerie (c), 13 BenoÃ®t Baby, 12 SeremaÃ¯a BaÃ¯, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Brock James, 9 Pierre Mignoni, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Jamie Cudmore, 5 LoÃ¯c Jacquet, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Mario Ledesma, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Mirko Lozupone, 17 Laurent Emmanuelli , 18 Alexandre Audebert, 19 Elvis Vermeulen, 20 John Senio, 21 Pierre-Manuel Garcia, 22 Grant Esterhuizen.
Munster: 15 Keith Earls, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Barry Murphy, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Ian Dowling, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 David Wallace, 7 Niall Ronan, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Frankie Sheahan, 1 Marcus Horan
Replacements: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 James Coughlan, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Paul Warwick, 22 Jeremy Manning
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: Rob Debney (England), Robin