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Munster roar to epic victory

13th December 2008 17:21

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Julien Malzieu

Clermont stunned: Julien Malzieu's try couldn't save his team from a late defeat

Munster prevailed in the battle against Clermont to get out of the Heineken Cup Pool One, winning 23-13 at Thomond Park in a classic do-or-die European Cup encounter.

It had everything. Moments of individual brilliance, stacks of inimitable collective heart from both sides, a fightback against all the odds from the visitors, a red card, a broken points record and a triumphant finale for the hosts and European champions.

Tales of Munster coming from behind in Europe are becoming too many to count, but you just can't tire of them on afternoons like this.

It's tempting to say Munster were given a helping hand by the sending-off of habitual villain Jamie Cudmore, but they ended up making their own luck. If anything, the incident galvanised the visitors into conceding fewer needless penalties and concentrating on winning fairly.

The two teams are similar in many ways. Clermont gave Munster a lesson in ball retention under pressure at times, occasionally exchanging the tactic of fringe-bashing with some mesmeric wide looping passes to attack from one touchline to the other. Remove that stumbling block of volcanic French passion from the mix and here is a team that could easily conquer Europe.

Munster have been after a similar expansive game for a couple of years now, with their pack in its prime. This season more than most has seen it develop, but it is still flawed too often. For all the work of the outside backs, all three tries came from forwards.

Clermont did have the better of a tense and cagey opening. Brock James won the territorial battle with the boot, helped in no small way by Anthony Floch's safety at full-back and Julien Malzieu's counter-attacking threat. David Wallace did lots of good work at breakdowns to help snuff out any dangerous Clermont raids, forcing frustration from the visitors in the form of a penalty count of 5-2. Ronan O'Gara missed one of them.

It all changed on 19 minutes. There had been a series of petty skirmishes in the five minutes leading up to it all, then another one turned ugly, with Cudmore flying one haymaker over the top. A pause as the whistle went, as Paul O'Connell screamed at the touch-judge for intervention, but then the red mist truly came down. Cudmore landed two more punches, O'Connell threw a good couple back and the game risked collapsing into one of those 30-man brawls you see on occasion in the Top 14.

Referee Chris White did excellently in pursuing a policy of firm authority. O'Connell copped a yellow card for his efforts, but Cudmore's red card for the initial blow was just and is likely to precipitate a lengthy ban from the game; lest we forget, the giant Canuck has some well-publicised previous in similar circumstances at Wasps last season. There was no hue of remorse or shame hanging over the tirade he delivered at O'Connell as the pair jogged off either.

Ronan O'Gara kicked a penalty as a result of it all, to which Brock James replied a couple of minutes later, but O'Gara gave his side back the lead five minutes later after a high tackle.

Munster's pack got into gear once O'Connell had returned. One Clermont scrum was monstered, line-outs became Munster restarts and the red backs began to create some flow. Good Clermont defence closed down the threat created by a Keith Earls break, Ronan O'Gara chipped and regathered but then ruined it all by trying to chip again.

Finally Munster did break through. Tomas O'Leary, Marcus Horan, O'Connell, O'Gara and Ian Dowling all combined sublimely down the right, bringing the latter to within inches of the line and forcing a 5m scrum. Wallace picked and drove, watched another phase, then picked and drove again for the try.

11-3 at the break and 15 on 14, Munster should surely have run away with it. The visitors had other ideas. For the first twenty minutes of the second half, Clermont enjoyed a staggering 89 per cent of the possession.

One move, started by a Marius Joubert break, lasted a staggering 20 phases. Napolioni Nalaga was hauled down close to the line. Benoit Baby was foiled by a crunching tackle from O'Leary that knocked both senseless.

Brock James landed a penalty for Alan Quinlan's offside, then on the hour mark Malzieu took the ball on an angle, straightened, and fended off poor tackles from Barry Murphy and Earls to score, James giving Clermont the lead from the touchline conversion.

Munster, renowned for their care with the ball in hand, were being undone at their own game.

It was difficult to see where the winner could come from, but it's a resilient heart that beats in Munster breasts.

They were given the chance to get into Clermont territory from a penalty, out the ball came to the left, on a couple more phases, over went Marcus Horan. O'Gara missed the conversion, so there was still room for, say, James to snatch a draw if he could land some form of goal...

Instead, Munster inflicted due retribution for Cudmore's almost-forgotten assault on their second-row king by denying their guests even a bonus point.

Niall Ronan gathered a loose clearing kick, spotted Davit Zirakashvili where the full-back should have been, kicked ahead and outpaced the Georgian to score a try.

One more final word for O'Gara, to seal Munster's perfect afternoon. His conversion from 5m in from the touchline made him the first person to pass 1,000 Heineken Cup points. Normal service resumed in the south of Ireland, while Clermont are probably out at the first hurdle once more.

Man of the match: David Wallace was the key for Munster while Clermont enjoyed their spell. Had it not been for his defence, Munster would never have had the chance to snatch the win

Moment of the match: Niall Ronan's try was every bit the classic coup de grāce to match the brilliance of Julien Malzieu's score. A joint award for those two.

Villain of the match: Jamie Cudmore - anger management classes please. A bit of biffo is one thing, but that flurry of punches was too ugly.

The scorers:

For Munster:

Tries: Wallace, Horan, Ronan

Con: O'Gara

Pens: O'Gara 2

For Clermont:

Try: Malzieu

Con: James

Pens: James 2

Yellow card: O'Connell (Munster, 19, punching)

Red card: Cudmore (Clermont, 19 punching)

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 Kieran Lewis.

Clermont: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Julien Malzieu, 13 Marius Joubert, 12 Benoit Baby, 11 Napoliani Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Pierre Mignoni, 8 Elvis Vermeulen (c), 7 Alexandre Audebert, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Thibault Privat, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Jacobus Roux, 2 Benoit Cabello, 1 Laurent Emmanuelli

Remplacements: 16 Mario Ledesma, 17 Davit Zirakashvili, 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Emmanuel Etien, 20 John Senio, 21 Seremaia Baļ, 22 Grant Esterhuizen

Referee: Chris White (England)

Touch judges: Roy Maybank (England), Kevin Stewart (England)

Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)

By Danny Stephens

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