AT THIS LEVEL of competition, there are very few things to substitute for experience.
Munster have it in spades. And with it comes the collective intellectual property of knowing how to react in almost any set of circumstances.
Clermont, with nothing but Ws on their Heineken Cup form-sheet this season, are the best team in Europe. But today they were pushed every single step of the way by a Munster side on the tail end of a disappointing season.
The southern province have been there and done it all before. And nobody in their ranks has more T-shirts than Ronan O’Gara.
Once Munster got a handle on their hosts attack after daunting opening 18 minutes, O’Gara bossed this Heineken Cup semi-final.
There were errors, sure. But when it came to putting the Pro12′s mid-table side within spitting distance of the top club in France, O’Gara (as he has so often done) held Munster’s fortune in his right boot. Only victory eluded him today.
“Obviously, I’m more mature now and looking back it was a fantastic occasion to be a part of,” an emotional O’Gara told SkySports after ending his lap of honour with his son in his arms. “But the only reason you play is to win.
“We mightn’t have deserved it, but we’ve serious resilience in the team and I’m proud to be part of this team.”
Before kick-off and after Napolioni Nalaga’s try helped Clermont into a 13- 3 lead, Munster looked like they could end up on the wrong side of a hiding. Led by the in-pain, indomitable Paul O’Connell and steered by O’Gara, that resilience ensured that no matter what the odds against them were, Munster would refuse to lie down and accept their fate.
A gallant move towards the try-line at the end of the first half bore no fruit as Clermont’s stray hands went unpunished. O’Gara made sure Munster played most of the match in Clermont territory. Yet his perfectly judged grubber into the corner for Denis Hurley only arrived after Morgan Parra had upped the ante to 16.
“We probably gave them too much of a start.” Continued O’Gara’s post-mortem.
“They were dead after 60 minutes. We could have snuck it. Maybe it wouldn’t have been deserved, but another 10 minutes and who’s to say what would have happened.”
It’s extraordinary to think that this 36-year-old out-half was the one set on finishing strong. But indeed, with only one score in the game, the nerves (and no shortage of Munster physicality) had Clermont rattled. Even the normally unwavering Parra chopped a crucial penalty across the posts.
When another questionable call from Nigel Owens on an O’Connell pass that traveled over a foot backwards finally ended Munster’s day, the final penalty was greeted with nothing short of glorious relief from all concerned with Vern Cotter’s side.
“We gave it our all.” Said O’Gara with the tone of a man who may just have played his tenth and final Heineken Cup semi-final. “Paul spoke really well inside. He was proud of us. When you come away from home you ask for character and I thought we showed character. It’s difficult to accept , but you move on.”
“I love coming to France, It’s giving me the best of my rugby memories. This competition has made me appreciate rugby so much.
Standing next to O’Connell, O’Gara said of his future: “I’ll sleep on it (a possible decision to retire) until the end of the season and we’ll see what goes on…. It’d be hard to leave this beauty here next to me.”