CLERMONT have never competed in a Heineken Cup final but they booked their first appearance yesterday evening with a nervy win over Munster in Montpellier.
Scorers: Clermont - Nalaga (try), Parra (con, pen x 3); Munster - Hurley (try), O’Gara (con, pen)
The French giants were favourites ahead of the semi-final but they looked out of sorts as Munster fought back in the second half and the Irishmen could have snatched it at the death. Munster performed wonders to stay with Clermont in a first half when the French were on fire. Almost any other side in Europe would have wilted under the physical onslaught of Clermont.
Ronan O’Gara rolled back the years, manufactured one try for his side and peppered the corners but his forward pack did not quite have the muscle to bully their way to the line.
Instead most of the bullying came from the French. When the likes Tomas Domingo and Nathan Hines were not picking and driving into the heart of the red shirts Wesley Fofana, Regan King and Napolioni Nalaga were stepping and feinting their way through the Munster defence.
Clermont enjoyed most of the ball and territory and only some typical bloody-mindedness from the Irishmen held them to 13-3 at the break. Munster actually opened the scoring thanks to an O’Gara penalty on six minutes but attacking opportunities were few and far between. As the clock went into the red at the end of the first half, the Munster big men were picking and driving their way to the Clermont line only to lose the ball in highly suspicious circumstances. If anything underhand took place it did so out of Nigel Owens’ line of sight.
Morgan Parra, pictured, kicked three penalties in total and converted Clermont’s try, which came from Nalaga after just eight minutes. The big winger started the move by picking and driving through the middle of the breakdown. The ball was moved right where Sitiveni Sivivatu stepped his way to within a few metres of the line. When the ball came was recycled the Nalaga ignored three unmarked men outside him to step his way under the posts.
The next touchdown went to Munster as the European specialists looked to their experienced stand-off to dig them out of a hole. O’Gara’s beautifully weighted grubber kick sat up nicely for replacement Denis Hurley and, when the 36-year-old No.10 added the extras, Munster were just one converted try from taking the lead with one quarter of the match remaining.
The Fields of Athenry rang out around the stadium and Clermont were clearly rattled. Felix Jones had a chance of a late try when he almost took advantage of another raking kick from O’Gara but a knock-on spoilt that chance and the French held on to book their place in the final in Dublin.