Munster come up short at Thomond Park against stifling Clermont

Munster come up short at Thomond Park against stifling Clermont

Munster 9Clermont 16

THE CLOSING MINUTES told a tale of what had come before.

Clermont’s oppressive defence continued to flood forward, hammering Munster ball carriers backwards, eating up the metres. The sublime Fritz Lee and his back row partners got their hands in to slow possession. Stifling.

Anthony Foley’s side had one final attempt to grab a draw, but the Clermont line-out stole it in the air through Damien Chouly to condemn Munster to a first-ever Thomond Park defeat to French opposition.

Errors pockmarked the home side’s display, with several costly knock-ons inside the Clermont 22 and from promising maul situations. This loss leaves Munster facing an uphill battle to advance from Pool 1 of the Champions Cup, particularly with a trip to Clermont’s intimidating Stade Marcel-Michelin to come next weekend.

Clermont enjoyed a fully-deserved 16-6 advantage at the break, having harried Munster into a sloppy 40-minute showing. From the moment Aurélien Rougerie claimed Camille Lopez’s kick-off, Foley’s men were under intense pressure.

Fritz Lee was over the whitewash for Clermont’s first try with just a minute on the clock, bouncing back to the right from the tail of a five-metre maul and finding little in the way of Munster resistance.

Lopez was wide with his conversion and then made a poor connection with a penalty attempt minutes later. Both sides looked to use the boot in open play early on, although Lopez and Clermont were the more impressive in that regard.

Dave Kilcoyne was forced off injured early on at Thomond Park. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Peter O’Mahony’s flurry of punches in the direction of Lee, after the Samoan number eight had landed a couple on Munster’s captain, helped Munster find their emotional intensity, leading to a big Tommy O’Donnell linebreak in the 13th minute.

Clermont conceded a maul penalty shortly after and Ian Keatley slotted it with a fine strike. Th French side’s oppressive fight for every scrap continued though, and when Conor Murray was blocked down just outside Munster’s 22, Julien Bonnaire opted for a daring grubber kick when simple hands might have sent Napolioni Nalaga over in the right corner.

Munster outside centre Pat Howard announced himself with a huge hit on Rougerie, but it Clermont kept coming and Fofana was next to dot down. Lee beat off the tackle of Keatley in the Munster 22, drawing in Howard before offloading.

Conor Murray’s attempt to tackle sufficed only to knock the ball into the path of Fofana, who skinned O’Mahony near the right touchline, fending the flanker to scorch in for five points.

Lopez was wide again with the conversion, before Keatley scored Munster’s second penalty. This shot came from the left-hand side after Wayne Barnes pinged Clément Ric at the scrum.

France out-half Lopez finally found his range with 31 minutes gone, smashing over a penalty from 40 metres out. More impressively, he followed that with a monster drop goal from 43 metres just three minutes later.

Foley’s men had a late chance to reduce the deficit, winning a penalty inside the Clermont 22 after Jamie Cudmore failed to roll away, but opted to go for the corner and maul.

A knock-on as Dave Foley transferred the ball let Clermont off the hook and sent Munster into the break 16-6 behind.

Two poor kicks from Keatley and then van den Heever meant Munster were slow into the second period, although the scrum began to gain a semblance of dominance as Barnes penalised Thomas Domingo twice.

Lopez scored a superb first-half drop goal from over 40 metres out. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster found themselves with another excellent mauling opportunity with 53 minutes gone, this time from 10 metres out. Again, the knock-on came as the ball was shifted to the tail. Chance gone.

Lopez fired directly into touch from outside his 22 five minutes later, allowing Munster to build a typically narrow attack that drew a straightforward penalty for Keatley. The out-half made no mistake to draw Munster to within seven points.

A huge Felix Jones hit on Nick Abendanon on kick chase then brought the Thomond Park crowd to their feet, the Clermont fullback heading for a concussion test after coming to.

Momentum looked to be creeping back in the home side’s favour as Simon Zebo made a scything break into Clermont territroy on kick return, but Murray’s low, diagonal kick three phases later went directly into touch to halt the attack.

The closing stages were tense beyond belief, as Munster desperately searched for the try that would allow Keatley to grab a draw. Clermont held their nerve; perhaps mental strength has grown in the Auvergne this season.

MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Gerhard van den Heever (Johne Murphy ’59), Pat Howard, Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’13), Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Paul O’Connell, Dave Foley; Peter O’Mahony (capt.), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Sean Dougall, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan.

CLERMONT: Nick Abendanon (Jonathan Davies ’61 – ’69); Noa Nakaitaci, Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga (Jonathan Davies ’69); Camille Lopez, Ludovic Radosavljevic; Thomas Domingo (Vincent Debaty ’65), Benjamin Kayser, Clément Ric (Davit Zirakashvili ’69); Jamie Cudmore, Sébastien Vahaamahina; Damien Chouly (capt.), Julien Bonnaire (Alexandre Lapandry ’61), Fritz Lee.

Replacements: John Ulugia, Julien Pierre, Thierry Lacrampe, Brock James.

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

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