MUNSTER’S brave fightback proved in vain as Clermont Auvergne clung on desperately for a 16-10 victory in their pulsating Heineken Cup semi-final tie played at the Stade de la Mosson, Montepellier on Saturday.
Morgan Parra converted Napolioni Nalaga’s ninth-minute try and landed three penalties as the much-fancied French club booked their place in the Dublin decider on Saturday, May 18.
Stade de la Mosson witnessed a stunning show of colour and noise from both sets of fans, with Clermont displaying a mental toughness late on that they have lacked in previous seasons.
Vern Cotter’s men gave glimpses of their enviable power and pace in the opening half, shooting into a 13-3 interval lead in front of their partisan support.
Munster dug deep to get back within a converted score, a converted try from replacement winger Denis Hurley cancelling out Parra’s third penalty.
That set up a tense climax during which Parra knocked a penalty attempt wide and although Casey Laulala went close to a second try for the province, Clermont held on to seal their maiden final appearance.
Playing in a record equalling tenth Heineken Cup semi-final, Munster took an early lead as Ronan O’Gara floated over a long left-sided kick after Clermont collapsed a maul.
But the concession sparked a flurry of angled attacks and clever offloads from the buoyant hosts, with Regan King and Sitiveni Sivivatu threatening off quick ruck ball.
Just two minutes after O’Gara’s penalty, Munster were pulled all over the place as Sivivatu went close before Nalaga, with an overlap to exploit, straightened the line superbly to nip past Keith Earls and dot down by the posts.
Parra converted and the composed scrum half then slotted a brace of penalties to extend Clermont’s advantage to 10 points by the end of the first quarter.
Clermont lock Jamie Cudmore avoided a yellow card for unnecessary use of the boot at a ruck, with Munster doing well to stay in contention under intense pressure.
Rob Penney’s side finally made some headway towards the latter stages of the first half. Tommy O’Donnell pressed with ball in hand, while Laulala and Earls combined from deep on the right flank.
Clermont had to poach a vital turnover close to their line after a late Munster surge, the highlight of which was a forceful carry from prop David Kilcoyne in front of the posts.
Parra widened the gap to 16-3 with a nicely lobbed penalty and Munster needed a well-timed tackle by Felix Jones on Fofana as Clermont hunted for their second try.
A piece of magic from veteran number 10 O’Gara unlocked the Clermont defence, Earls’ replacement Hurley diving on the out-half’s deft grubber kick to score in the right corner.
O’Gara coolly swung over the conversion to whittle Clermont’s lead down to six points, ramping up the pressure on the Frenchmen who were rated 1/7 favourites beforehand.
Parra slid a kickable penalty to the right and wide with 12 minutes left, his miss inviting Munster forward again with Clermont looking increasingly nervous and tired.
Nalaga was almost caught out as Laulala nudged a delicate kick through, the Munster centre just knocking on as the ball bounced close to the whitewash with the lively Jones also close by.
The final throw of the dice saw O’Gara punt a long penalty to touch on the left. Clermont stood firm, showing plenty of character with their strong bench coming into play.
They forced a turnover before Munster, looking to utilise an overlap from deep, were whistled up for a forward pass from captain Paul O’Connell and with that the province’s challenge for a third European crown was over.
SCORERS – Clermont Auvergne: Napolioni Nalaga try, Morgan Parra three pens, Brock James con. Munster: Denis Hurley try, Ronan O’Gara pen, con.
CLERMONT AUVERNGE – Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire (capt), Julien Bardy, Damien Chouly. Replacements: Julien Piuerre for Cudmore (injured, 39 mins), Alexandre Lapandry for Bardy (57 mins), Vincent Debaty for Domingo (62 mins), Noa Nakaitaci for King (64 mins), Ti’i Paulo for Kayser (69 mins), Clement Ric for Zirakashvili (78 mins).
MUNSTER – Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan. Replacements: Denis Hurley for Earls (51 mins) Damien Varley for Sherry (57 mins)
REFEREE – Nigel Owens (Wales)