Heineken Cup Quarter Final
Llanelli Scarlets 24 Munster 15
Stradey Park, March 30th (10,800)
Munster's European odyssey came to an abrupt halt last night in Stradey Park as the Llanelli Scarlets, captained by Ireland's Simon Easterby, overpowered the champions and set down a marker for the rest of the tournament.
A powerful first half display saw Llanelli take a 17 - 0 lead to leave Munster with a seemingly impossible task, even by their own heroic standards.
Munster left it late in the second before they found some structure and mounted a fightback but the Scarlets, with Alix Popham in the van, proved resilient and the brave and faithful left Stradey Park to write another chapter in their European rugby history.
The Scarlet's half time lead of 17-0 followed tries by wing Dafydd James and flanker Gavin Thomas, which
Ian Dowling touched down 13 minutes from time, although the pass from Christian Cullen appeared to be forward, but it was not enough as Llanelli kept their shape and organisation to conjure a brilliant score for full-back Barry Davies.
The Scarlets, beaten semi-finalists in 2000 and 2002, will now face Leicester or Stade Francais - they clash at Welford Road on Sunday - in three weeks' time.
And with Llanelli boasting seven successive Heineken Cup victories this season, the Welsh juggernaut appears to be rumbling ominously towards the May 20 final at Twickenham.
Munster suffered a first away defeat in the tournament for 18 months, and with it went all hope of emulating Leicester as only the second team to retain European rugby's biggest club prize.
Stephen Jones converted all three tries, while Davies kicked a long-range penalty, but Munster captain Ronan O'Gara could only land two strikes from five attempts - which included the conversion of substitute lock Donnacha Ryan's consolation try.
Munster produced their best rugby during the closing 15 minutes, yet Llanelli's forwards never a lost a ravenous appetite, as number eight Alix Popham proved a towering presence in attack and defence.
Munster went into action without injured skipper Paul O'Connell and full-back Shaun Payne. Mick O'Driscoll deputised in the second-row, while O'Gara took over as captain with former All Blacks star Cullen replacing Payne.
Llanelli though, had no such injury worries after Stephen Jones confirmed his recovery from a broken wrist which sidelined him for Wales' RBS 6 Nations finale against England, and wing Mark Jones shook off a knee problem.
The Scarlets' famous old ground - scene of their 1972 victory over New Zealand - was packed to the rafters, and Llanelli made a storming start by breaching Munster's defence inside five minutes.
Centre Gavin Evans was driven deep into Munster territory by supporting Scarlets forwards, before scrum-half Dwayne Peel's inch-perfect crosskick found James, who cut inside a weak Cullen challenge for his 28th Heineken Cup try.
The tournament's record finisher had once again underlined his predatory instincts, and with Jones slotting a wide-angled conversion, Munster found themselves seven points adrift.
With a strong wind at their backs, Llanelli knew the importance of putting points on the board, but Munster were content to play a waiting game and allow O'Gara to shunt them forward through some clever tactical kicking.
After a testing opening quarter, Munster settled into the contest, although their cause wasn't helped by O'Gara missing two penalties, his second failure following a concerted spell of pressure that asked Llanelli questions.
But Llanelli finished the half as they started it - on top.
Davies slammed over a 50-metre penalty via a generous bounce off the crossbar - it evoked memories of former Leicester goalkicker Tim Stimpson's semi-final clincher against Llanelli five years ago - then the Scarlets struck a colossal blow.
Hooker Matthew Rees almost breached the Munster defence after breaking free, but Llanelli were not to be denied, and quickly recycled possession saw Thomas go for glory, despite an unmarked Mark Jones screaming for the ball outside him.
Thomas though, did just enough as his momentum saw him ground possession on Munster's line, and referee Chris White consulted video official Graham Hughes for confirmation of the score.
Jones converted, hoisting the Scarlets 17 points clear and leaving Munster with a mountain to climb, but they could have no complaints after Llanelli had performed with far greater levels of intensity and discipline.
An attritional third quarter ended with O'Gara opening Munster's account through a penalty, and Llanelli - despite being two converted tries ahead - showed signs of creaking when substitute Inoke Afeaki was sin-binned for pulling down a maul.
Temporarily down to seven forwards, Llanelli had to regroup, but Dowling's score raised the stakes despite O'Gara rifling his conversion wide.
Llanelli though, were not to be denied and a sweeping move that involved Stephen Jones, Regan King, Mark Jones and lock Scott MacLeod ended with Davies sealing the deal.
Munster: Christian Cullen; John Kelly, Lifeimi Mafi, Trevor Halstead, Ian Dowling; Ronan O'Gara (capt), Peter Stringer; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes; Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll; Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Llanelli Scarlets: Barry Davies; Dafydd James, 13 Regan King, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Mark Jones, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Dwayne Peel, Iestyn Thomas, Matthew Rees, Deacon Manu; Vernon Cooper, Scott MacLeod; Simon Easterby (capt), Gavin Thomas, Alix Popham.
Referee: Chris White (England)
Touch judges: Tony Spreadbury (England), Peter Huckle (England)