The Wally Ratings

European Champions Cup 2020/21 Round 2 :: Clermont 31 Munster 39

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It won’t be hard to remember where you were for this one. You were probably at home, or maybe you were lucky enough to be watching it in a club somewhere but wherever you were, you won’t forget what you were doing when you watched the Miracle of Stade Marcel Michelin in the year COVID19 ground the world to a halt.

Every now and then, I get a message from a new fan or someone so young that they only have a passing memory of what the 2000s were like, and they ask a variation of “what was it like then?”. Truth be told, I can’t really remember. I have vague memories of watching big games with my uncle, I remember going to the Saracens game in 2000 in Thomond Park but not in any great detail. I remember flashes and moments. I remember chips on the way home and going to bed knackered and hoarse but I can’t tell you what anything in that game was like bar cursing Saracens late try that I thought had won the game for them, losing my mind at that last minute lineout where Wood scored his second and then watching Ronan O’Gara kick the winner off the post and nearly blacking out with excitement.

Then chips, then black night on the road home, then sleep.

You never really note the magical moments when they happened – they just did.

I remember going to the Northampton game in 2010 with my brother, for example, and I only remember two things in any detail; the crowd going absolutely mental for that scrum against the head, a big carry by Tony Buckley and a big tackle by Doug Howlett on the Northampton flyhalf after a garryowen by Ronan O’Gara. I can’t tell you anything else about the game that I haven’t subsequently watched on Youtube.

Then there’s the Miracle Matches – Gloucester, Sale and now ASM Clermont Auvergne. What people don’t remember about the first two Miracle Matches is that the entire reason they were miracles at all was because Munster were badly beaten in the “first legs” of those games. Gloucester hockeyed Munster 35-16 in the first game of the 2002/3 pool and Sale did the same in Edgeley Park in the first game of the 2005/6 European Pool.

This Miracle Match featured the initial hockeying and the miraculous rejection of perceived reality in the same 80 minutes.

***

ASM do not lose in Stade Marcel Michelin. Well, that isn’t true actually – they do lose at home – but to be precise, ASM Clermont Auvergne do not lose at home in the European Cup. Prior to this game, they had won 31 of their last 32 European Cup pool games and the last time they tasted defeat in this stadium was to Bordeaux back in the dregs of the 2015/16 season.

To put it into perspective, Clermont have never lost at home in the pool stages of the European Cup to non-French opposition.

Until now.

And if you tuned out after 25 minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking that Clermont were going to make it 32 wins out of 33. There are bad starts, there are horror starts and there is how Munster started in this game.

I include Slimani’s illegal stand up and lift of Josh Wycherley at the scrum as an illustration of how those opening 25 minutes felt. Nothing went right. We couldn’t claim our restarts, their big runners were getting angles and space out wide, their offloads were sticking and we were conceding yellow cards, close range set-pieces and tries. I wrote before the game about what Clermont wanted to do here;

They want to load up their stacked midfield hitters and roll them off their forward screens with Parra/Lopez finding ways to bring scary runners like Raka, Penaud and Matsushima into the line against fragmented, overloaded defences.

But to do that, they need field position. They get field position from penalties, which we have to avoid conceding too many of regardless, but their launch off the lineout is particularly dangerous, given the quality of their midfield runners and the sophistication of their block lines.

Clermont did exactly that, aided by a series of Munster errors in the worst possible places and the worst possible times. You know what it felt like? “Let’s keep it under 50”. That isn’t how Munster reacted – far from it – but that’s how it felt as Camille Lopez converted their bonus point try with barely 25 minutes gone in the half.

Yet even then, the seeds of Munster’s miracle were already planted.

Look at the scores.

7-0
7-3
14-3
14-6
21-6
21-9
28-9

Even while Clermont were scoring their bonus point, Munster were keeping the scoreboard ticking over by kicking almost every penalty opportunity that the Jaunards coughed up, so while the scoreline looked bad – and was bad – it wasn’t insurmountable.

A lot of those penalties were based on the sequence of the game. We knew that Clermont would not be looking to go to the lineout too often if they could possibly avoid it, based on the issues they have in the back five with regards to elite jumpers so what does that mean? A lot of ball kept deliberately infield by ASM when they look to exit.

Mike Haley’s work on these transition balls was excellent. He ran solid, predictable hit up lines into the teeth of the Clermont transition defence. All of these examples are directly after Clermont kick backs.

In this position, you want predictable lines because it allowed Munster to snap into our second phase structures quite easily and we repeatedly stressed Clermont with our shape and ball movement. That stress earned penalty opportunities, which Hanrahan converted excellently and repeatedly.

When Munster won a key breakdown penalty near the half hour mark that Hanrahan kicked to just outside the Clermont 22, you felt that something had to happen. A few minutes earlier, Hanrahan had a deep penalty kick down the line picked off in the air by Damian Penaud so this one had to find it’s mark, and it did, but that was only half the job. Did we have a strike move that could attack ASM where they were weak?

Yes.

I wrote before the game about the importance of hitting Clermont at 10 and, on the B&T podcast, I spoke about how this opens up opportunities on Clermont’s outside centre Jean Pascal Barraque.

This lineout strike utilised both. Look at the trio of big ball carriers in midfield – Coombes, De Allende and Farrell. After a perfectly executed maul feint – so effective that it bound in Clermont’s forwards even better than we could have expected – Marhshall looped around Stander’s swivel pass before passing to De Allende, De Allende executed a perfect pull back to Coombes and Coombes absolutely dominated Camille Lopez before driving deep into the Clermont 22.

From there, Murray swept the ball to O’Mahony, who staggered his footwork beautifully to stick the two defending forwards and that isolated Barraque for the perfect finish. O’Mahony found Haley and Haley finished strongly.

Look at O’Mahony’s pace from the maul feint to his footwork before he even took the pass.

That’s elite.

And all of a sudden, it was 28-16 at halftime. Twelve points back with 40 minutes to play? A losing bonus point would be in range for sure. A win was doable, for sure, but this is still the Stade Marcel Michelin. This is still Clermont.

Something unprecedented would be needed and whatever else happened, Munster had to score next.

***

In the 42nd minute, Gavin Coombes won a massive breakdown penalty that gave Munster an opportunity to kick deep into the Clermont half. Hanrahan made no mistake and his kick flirted with the Clermont 22. From that lineout, Clermont infringed in the air and coughed up another penalty. It would have been easy for Munster to panic here and remember that they are 12 points down. Kick to the corner, you might say. Seven points are better than three. Well, yes, but Clermont weren’t ready for that yet. Instead, Peter O’Mahony pointed to the posts and Hanrahan duly obliged.

28-19

The next part of the game was dominated by the scrum. Remember Josh Wycherley’s bad moment against Rabah Slimani in the first 20 minutes? That will be on Instagram highlight reels for the rest of the year but that doesn’t even tell half the story. When Slimani was forced to scrummage, as opposed to stand up, Josh Wycherley – a 21 year old academy player – was not only holding his own, he was starting to dominate.

The first scrum of the second half came after another botched Munster restart. “You have him, Josh, you have him,” shouted Gavin Coombes as he packed down behind him. And he was right.

After a scrum like that, you know that Slimani will be coming for you on the next put in. You know he’s going to be looking to put a marker down on you but Wycherley resisted that too and was unlucky not to get another penalty for Slimani standing up and driving across.

On the next scrum, earned by good defence off the last scrum, Wycherley resisted a big counter by Slimani again, kept his end of the scrum in and created space for Munster to break up the field through another attack in the 10 channel. Clermont would infringe again as Munster rolled around the corner.

Are we going down the corner yet?

No.

Not yet.

28-22

From there, Munster began to get their preferred sequence of the game into play. Kick, pressure the kick, force the exit, pressure the lineout, go again.

Eventually, our sequence of play lead to a crooked Clermont lineout thrown under pressure deep in their own half, and off that launch, Munster were a hair away from a try in the corner but an off the ball no arms tackle on Marshall lead to a Clermont yellow card and a penalty.

Down the line time? A converted try would put us one point ahead, after all, but no.

Not yet.

28-25

Now it was down to a three point game. Gavin Coombes was unlucky to concede a penalty soon after the restart – the ball looked available to me – but the botched pass by the scrumhalf sold it for the referee.

Still, a setback, and Clermont scored their first points in 25 minutes.

31-25

We spoke before the game about how Munster should expect to have an advantage in the maul in this game and that isn’t something that applies from minute one directly but it does accumulate over time. So, if you expect to have a maul advantage, that advantage will become more profound as you move deeper into the game. Clermont were without a specialist tighthead lock in this game and that kind of thing isn’t a problem, up until it’s a massive problem.

Munster were starting to grind down the Clermont maul. You could see evidence of it as soon as the 46th minute when we drove ASM back 10m from the halfway line, earning a penalty in the process.

By the time Rhys Marshall was a hair away from dotting down our first close range maul shove of the game, you can see the tiredness in ASM defence. They were breaking. We knew it and they knew it. The next lineout for ASM would be crucial.

Before the game, I wrote about what Munster wanted from this game, given Clermont’s issue with elite jumpers.

To use our defensive lineout to prevent or stymie Clermont from getting their strike plays in action. Ideally, we’d force them into a lot of poor maul builds, over-throws, knock-ons or even clean steals to the point where we can actively shrink the radius of Clermont’s lineout i.e. get them throwing short, quick ball to the front to get away from O’Mahony, Beirne, etc.

That didn’t happen in dramatic fashion in the first half but by the second quarter and definitely in the second half, Munster had started to twig Clermont’s patterns. We were getting closer and closer to their throws, which themselves were getting shorter and shorter.

 

When Beirne made a clean steal on the Clermont 5m line, ASM had to infringe with a dangerous pull in the air. Another yellow card and another penalty, but we weren’t going to kick for goal on this this one.

With 11 minutes to go, Munster were going for the win.

As for most of the game, Josh Wycherley had a massive impact as Munster went for a shift maul. The throw went to O’Mahony in the middle – lifted by Beirne and the equally impressive Fineen Wycherley – who popped the ball down to a shift maul unit of Jack O’Donoghue, John Ryan, Josh Wycherley and driven by CJ Stander.

De Allende and Farrell, who started the lineout at the front, peeled out and then locked in on the shift maul but the biggest job went to Josh Wycherley. He has to “turn the corner” as this maul goes through the Clermont defence.

If Wycherley does it successfully, the shift maul will pivot around him and lead to an easy score and, much like he did with everything else, he nailed it.

When JJ Hanrahan lined up his eight kick of the evening in the 70th minute, he was kicking for the lead.

Did he make it? Did he ever.

31-32

At this point, Clermont were broken. They had been 19 points up – at home in their fortress, no less – and they had let the game slip to the point where they were now a point behind. The Munster maul would strike again.

A tired Clermont build rolled across the front of a strong Munster counter, Pelisse broke free straight into the arms of CJ Stander who choked him up and, with Jack O’Donoghe, Billy Holland and others, won a scrum for Munster. Josh Wycherley would go off right after this scrum but he wasn’t done influencing this game just yet.

No one would have blamed Munster for kicking for goal here. We would have chewed up 90 seconds and limited the time Clermont had left to pull something out of the bag. They’d have needed a try to win it if we went four points up but we didn’t want to end it like that – we wanted the kill shot.

Kevin O’Byrne delivered it. Pay attention to Liam O’Connor’s wipe across the edge of the maul to prevent Fritz Lee from getting into O’Donoghue’s route.

The TMO needed to confirm O’Byrne’s try but confirm it they did and, with that, Clermont would not have a losing bonus point to go with their earlier try bonus point. Munster saw out the win relatively comfortably and, in doing so, ensured we would have a two point lead over Clermont in the pool.

31-39

From the depths of a 19 point lead, to denying Clermont a losing bonus point in 55 incredible minutes. In some ways, I still can’t really believe it. I can see how it happened, I understand the principles of what went on but even so, here I am writing the scoreline

This wasn’t a nostalgia game where Munster produced something like the Munster Of Old™, as if it was a tired nostalgia act. I think we’ve fallen for that before when Munster have come back to beat teams that we really should have been beating anyway.

This was different.

This was Clermont – down a few key guys, like ourselves – in the Stade Marcel Michelin after we gifted them a 19 point headstart midway through the first half. Most teams are happy enough to leave that stadium with a losing bonus point but we wanted more, even when we looked like we’d be lucky to get within 10 points of them at the end of the first quarter.

Producing a miracle match like this doesn’t mean you are destined to win the Big One. The one in 2003, for example, ended in Toulouse at the semi-final stage. But what it does mean is that there is a core of raw, pure belief running through this side. And, as we’ve seen in years gone by, belief – real belief – can be a powerful thing.

They all thought we were dead and buried but they forgot to nail the coffin shut – that will always be a mistake against Munster. We showed the rugby world once again that we are the hook you didn’t see coming, the monster you should have made sure was dead and the bad guys that show up as the credits roll.

And it feels good.

Notable Players

This ended up being one of the great collective European performances. Keith Earls, for example, had a desperately poor opening quarter by his standards but he grew back into the game with some nice breaks as time passed on. Gavin Coombes, too, had a tough opening 10 minutes under a restart and when he got stiff armed by Pecili Yato on the way to Clermont’s first try but he too grew into the game with some hugely physical carries of the ball, big impact defence in the tackle and at the breakdown.

The strides he has taken this season are a sight to behold. Shane Daly, too, had a difficult start but eased his way back into the game really well.

This game was driven by a core of incredibly strong performances.

Conor Murray and Craig Casey brought different styles to the game at scrumhalf but both were equally effective. Murray kicked well and made good, sharp decisions on-ball. Casey came off the bench like an injection of pure adrenaline and helped run Clermont off their feet in the crucial last 15 minutes.

Would want anyone else closing out that game yesterday? Casey is the real deal, but you already know that.

De Allende and Farrell were pure quality, as you’d expect. Both men played really complete games in all facets – carrying, rucking, defence, mauling. Quality.

Jean Kleyn and Fineen Wycherley brought real power and physicality into every collision and helped set the maul platform that would win Munster the game. Fineen played played a role in the second row and finished on the flank scrummaging behind his younger brother as Munster won a penalty that would decide the game.

Tadhg Beirne called a near perfect lineout in the second half and showed the kind of complete game that we haven’t fully seen since his Scarlets hey-day. It isn’t that he’s been poor for Munster over the last two years – far from it – but this seems like the first time that our system has fully gotten the best out of Beirne’s complete skillset. This Tadhg Beirne is the guy that can win you trophies. ★★★★★

Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander took control of this game from the 25th minute and didn’t let go until Clermont were left broken and beaten. Both men played the kind of complete game that showcases exactly why they are both proper legends of this club. Previous Miracle Matches have been bolstered by legendary, iconic veterans who refuse to lose on that given day and this one was no different – Stander and O’Mahony showed they are far from a spent force at this level. ★★★★★

I think Mike Haley suffered in first season or two at this club because he wasn’t Simon Zebo. In truth, they are very different players with wildly varying strengths. It’s unlikely that Mike Haley will overhaul Simon Zebo’s try scoring record for Munster but Mike Haley offers something that very few top level fullbacks offer these days – he is a lockdown backfield defender with the size and pace to run smart, effective kick return lines and the hands to put people away when it’s on. Sure, he made a poor decision on one break when he probably should have held onto the ball but when you need him on your shoulder to finish, he’s invariably in the right place. Above anything else, Mike Haley does the right thing 99 times out of a 100 and that is an invaluable quality that every side needs. This game was a further illustration of those qualities. ★★★★★

I have been quite tough on JJ Hanrahan this season. He’s suffered a little next to Ben Healy, who seemed to have a happy knack of stepping in between the white lines and winning games. That kind of thing shines pretty bright.

I spoke before the game about how I thought JJ needed “a big one” here and I defined that as kicking smartly in possession and nailing every penalty that Clermont coughed up. He did both with a steely composure that belied the tough days he’s had in the big games over the last year.

When JJ lined up this kick to go ahead with 9 minutes to play, I knew he’d make it.

It is no exaggeration to say that Hanrahan won this game for Munster off the tee and he did so from all over the pitch. Sure, he blotted his copybook with a few missed touches but when you’re sticking the ball between the posts when it counts in the toughest place to go in Europe, you deserve all the plaudits you get. ★★★★★

Scrummaging examinations don’t come much tougher for a young loosehead prop than Rabah Slimani. Whatever about anything else, Slimani is a scrum-first tighthead prop and you might say “well hang on, aren’t all tighthead props “scrum-first””? And the answer to that is no. Some tighthead props are collision first players who hang on in there at the scrum. Slimani is no slouch in collisions but his biggest strength – by far – is his aggressive, destructive scrummaging. That’s why you select him.

So in steps 21 year old Academy player Josh Wycherley.

You could have been forgiven in assuming that Wycherley was in for a horror show after that scrum. Illegal or not, it was a marker of dominance. I lifted you. You could forgive any young prop for folding his tent up, focusing on his defence and praying to God that there was no knockons for the rest of the game as Slimani crowed around the place after that particular scrum, eyes popping and spit flying.

Put that isn’t who Josh Wycherley is. He didn’t panic. He didn’t fall in on himself. He decided that he wouldn’t get done like that again and, not only that, that he was going to dominate every prop they put in front of him for the rest of the game.

Wycherley got the measure of Slimani, took everything he had, dominated him, stood up to his attempt to put down a marker, outlasted him by 22 minutes, beasted Slimani’s replacement for good measure and played a key role in the decisive Munster try.

Oh, and he was our top tackler too during his 76 minutes on the field.

This is not how stories like this are supposed to go. Slimani should have nailed Wycherley to the floor, teaching him those hard lessons that we’re told all young props have to learn off experienced, veteran opposition. By the end, it was Josh Wycherley handing out the hard lessons. One game doesn’t make a guy but if one game was ever the making of anyone, it would be this game that Josh Wycherley put down. If I could give six stars, I would. Absolutely remarkable stuff. ★★★★★

The Wally Ratings: Clermont (A)

The Wally Ratings explainer page is here.  

Players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.

NamesRating
Josh Wycherley★★★★★
Rhys Marshall★★★★
Stephen Archer★★★★
Jean Kleyn★★★★
Tadhg Beirne★★★★★
Gavin Coombes★★★★
Peter O'Mahony★★★★★
CJ Stander★★★★★
Conor Murray★★★★
JJ Hanrahan★★★★★
Shane Daly★★★
Damian De Allende★★★★
Chris Farrell★★★★
Keith Earls★★★
Mike Haley★★★★★
Kevin O'Byrne★★★★
Liam O'ConnorN/A
John Ryan★★★★
Fineen Wycherley★★★★
Billy Holland★★★
Craig Casey★★★★
Rory Scannell N/A
Jack O'Donoghue★★★★