Munster were forced to come from behind to pip Llanelli 14-13 and chalk up their 16th straight home success in the Celtic League on Friday night.
CELTIC LEAGUE: Friday, September 23
Munster 14 Llanelli Scarlets 13, Musgrave Park (Att: 5,000)
Scorers: Munster: Try: Ian Dowling; Pens: Ronan O'Gara 3
Llanelli: Tries: Lee Byrne, Matthew Watkins; Pen: Mike Hercus
It was Munster's third win from four outings so far this season and an all-round improvement on last week's woeful 32-10 loss to Glasgow. The comforting return of the province's four Lions helped - Paul O'Connell proved immense in the lineout, taking one-handed catches at will, and spurring his team mates on as they turned around with 13-8 deficit.
It was left to fly-half Ronan O'Gara, who struck up a half-back partnership with former Ireland Under-21 Tomas O'Leary, to convert two penalties on 61 and 64 minutes that eventually proved to be the winning kicks.
Llanelli had the winning of this game however. With John Hayes in the sin-bin for a late stamp on John Davies, former Sale and Parma fly-half Mike Hercus, who endured a shoddy night from place kicks, had an 83rd-minute penalty chance from 30 metres to steal the decision for the visitors.
Fortunately for the home side, the US Eagle, who gained little confidence from three misses shots in the first half, skewed his effort to the left and wide.
Munster could breathe again, but only just, as in the last move of the match, they were forced to defend their line as Wales international Tal Selley set up a frantic finish with a chip-and-charge attack down the right wing. Decisively, former Springbok Trevor Halstead gobbled up the ball as it came to a standstill just past the Munster try line with Selley just metres behind, and the final whistle was music to Munster ears.
It was still unconvincing from Declan Kidney's side, who were forced to hand O'Leary, the son of Cork hurling legend Seanie O'Leary, his debut as Peter Stringer failed a late fitness test due to a back spasm. 22-year-old duo Barry Murphy and Ian Dowling also started and were in the thick of the action early on.
Twice in the opening three minutes, full-back Murphy was forced to end Scarlets' attacks only metres from the home line, but Munster, playing in navy blue, settled down as soon as O'Gara kicked his first penalty on the quarter-hour.
Their forward dominance was plain to see on 17 minutes when former Ireland rugby league international Dowling was put in for the game's first try. Alan Quinlan stole a lineout, allowing Kidney's men to gallop up field and from O'Gara's well-judged chip kick, Dowling pounced on the loose ball to score.
O'Gara missed the conversion and Munster were fortunate not to concede at the other end four minutes later, when former Lion Dafydd James fumbled a Matthew Watkins pass with the line only metres away.
The Scarlets did hit back on 24 minutes when a James break saw Munster's defence sucked in and full-back Lee Byrne had a relatively easy run-in from the right flank. Hercus failed with the conversion yet the Scarlets comfortably bossed the latter stages of the half.
Regan King checked Irish flanker Denis Leamy, who started at outside centre, for the speedy Watkins to power over and equal Derrick Lee's League try-scoring record of 19.
Hercus failed with the conversion but the US Eagle fired over a 30-metre penalty in injury-time for a 13-8 interval buffer.
Rob Henderson was restored to Munster's midfield in place of Leamy for the second half, but a listless first quarter saw both sides scrambling for a hold of possession and no dent made on the scoreboard. Munster closed the gap to two on the hour when O'Gara punished John Davies for not rolling away with his second penalty.
Scarlets lock Adam Jones was then sin-binned for a similar offence and O'Gara mopped up with the penalty for the lead - 14-13 - on 64 minutes.
A mazy 50-metre run from Murphy was the highlight of the final quarter-hour as Munster went closest to netting another try when John Kelly was held up short by Scarlets hooker Aled Gravelle on a short range drive.
Munster were forced to sweat out the finish however. They were down to 14 men when Hayes was yellow carded for an off-the-ball incident by Scottish referee Andy Ireland. It mattered little in the end, but only just, as the Scarlets coughed up their two late chances.
MUNSTER: Barry Murphy; John Kelly, Denis Leamy (Rob Henderson half-time), Trevor Halstead, Ian Dowling; Ronan O'Gara, Tomas O'Leary; Federico Pucciariello (Marcus Horan 77), Frank Sheahan, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell (Mick O'Driscoll 75), Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Anthony Foley (Capt) (Pucciariello 80).
LLANELLI: Lee Byrne; Dafydd James, Matthew Watkins, Regan King, Tal Selley; Mike Hercus, Clive Stuart-Smith (Liam Davies 74); Iestyn Thomas, Aled Gravelle, John Davies, Hottie Louw (Chris Wyatt 47), Adam Jones, Simon Easterby (Capt), Jonathan Mills, Alix Popham.
Referee: Andy Ireland (Scotland); Sin-Bin: Adam Jones (Llanelli) (64 mins), John Hayes (Munster) (78)