Ian Dowling is the meat in a Clermont Auvergne sandwich during last season’s European Cup meeting at Thomond Park. The sides renew hostilities in France next Sunday.

Ian Dowling is the meat in a Clermont Auvergne sandwich during last season’s European Cup meeting at Thomond Park. The sides renew hostilities in France next Sunday.

Munster remain top of the Magners League after last Friday’s trip to the new Parc y Scarlets despite taking the foot firmly off the pedal during a nervy second half.

Having led by 12 points at half-time, the table toppers allowed a Llanelli team minus its Welsh test players back into a game that ought to have ended as a contest much earlier.

As it has been on many other occasions, Munster defended their line superbly in the final minutes of the game, and had to rely on a Ronan O’Gara penalty in the 77th minute to pull the win out of the fire.

Ian Dowling and Denis Leamy (who picked up another injury) touched down for first half tries as the province, bolstered by the return of their international players, flexed their muscles.

But that was as good as it got for Munster, and there’s little doubt they’ll have been pushed that little harder in training this week following a slipshod second half display.

“We got out of jail,” admitted stand-in captain Ronan O’Gara.

“But the most pleasing thing is that the boys showed character. Three minutes remaining was what we were told after the [Llanelli] try, they tore into it, and somehow we got a penalty out of it – it seemed like a very long three minutes after that…

“We finished up fighting, but I think we had the measure of them for the whole game and when we needed to pull out a bit more, we did. But that’s dangerous; you get away with it only every now and then.”   

Ahead of next Sunday’s Heineken Cup trip to Clermont Auvergne (kick-off: 4pm), any laurel resting after the classic with the All Blacks will have been firmly kicked to touch.

Victory next weekend in France should put Munster in a very strong position to progress to the knock-out stages yet again.

However, last season’s nail biting battle at the same stage, in which the province fought back to claim a losing bonus point, suggests that another close encounter beckons.

The Clermont charm offensive has already begun ahead of the big match, with winger Julien Malzieu describing the defending champions as “one of the best teams in the world”.

Said the French attacker: “As reigning European champions we expect them to be tough to beat but [last season we] played them twice and we won the second leg at home so that is most encouraging and we could say that Sunday’s game is ours for the taking.”

Added Malzieu: “When we heard that we would be in the same Pool as Munster again my first reaction was very positive, I was happy at the prospect of facing such a great team again.

“Last year I was very impressed to be competing against legends like Doug Howlett as I used to watch him on TV when I was younger and then there I was on the field with him – it is simply awesome.”

Sunday’s match provides Tony McGahan with a conundrum. Clermont are packed with quality and can beat anyone in the competition when they’re in the mood.

Keeping it tight in a forwards-orientated match could frustrate the hosts and force them into penalty concessions.

Open it up, like Munster had to during that remarkable second half recovery last January and they could blow Clermont away.

But such a high-risk approach is also an energy sapping approach and isn’t feasible in terms of an 80-minute game against top class opponents.

Leafing through the Clermont squad, their class is undeniable – Mario Ledesma, Aurelién Rougerie and Pierre Mignoni to name but three, hints at the quality of the squad at coach Vern Cotter’s disposal.

But a Munster win next Sunday would kill off Clermont’s hopes of progression, the perfect scenario ahead of the return fixture in Thomond Park on Saturday week. That ought to be motivation enough for the holders as their two-in-a-row hunt continues.