Munster tore up the script and silenced the Stade Aime Giral crowd on Sunday, putting in a simply outstanding display as tries from Denis Fogarty, Denis Hurley, Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett saw them put French champions Perpignan firmly in their place.
Answering their critics in some style, Munster recorded one of the finest away victories in Heineken Cup history with a thrilling bonus point win at Perpignan.
The French champions had won 16 successive European ties at the famed bear pit of Stade Aime Giral, having not been beaten in the south of France since London Wasps tasted success there in 2004.
But Tony McGahan’s under fire side brilliantly took full control of Pool 1 with an excellent display, particularly in the second half when, despite losing out-half Ronan O’Gara to a yellow card, the visitors rose to the challenge with tries from Denis Hurley, Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett.
Collectively, Munster, with their starting line-up unchanged from last weekend’s stuttering 24-23 home win, were simply immense and a world away from their recent lacklustre outings.
With Munster’s game plan working a treat and composure and confidence spreading throughout the side, team captain Paul O’Connell, back rowers David Wallace and Denis Leamy and scrum half Tomas O’Leary deserve special mention for their consistently brilliant ball work and sheer graft at the coalface.
The province’s stranglehold of the breakdown and collision area saw them recapture the sort of form which guided them to the title in 2006 and 2008, giving the vocal travelling support an early Christmas present for the journey back home.
To put in such an excellent performance at the Aime Giral beggars belief. Especially when you consider that since losing to Biarritz there in April 2007, Perpignan have played 43 competitive matches at their home ground, and have lost only one of them, winning 40 and drawing two.
Pumped up by their three try display at Thomond Park, Perpignan began brightly and took the lead in the fifth minute after hooker Fogarty was adjudged by English official Dave Pearson to be offside.
Scrum half David Mele stepped up in clear blue skies to slot home the penalty with consummate ease.
The hosts continued to pile the early pressure on the two-time European champions with out-half Gavin Hume bombarding Munster full-back Paul Warwick under the high ball.
Then Hume turned creator as his deft chip found space and centre Maxime Mermoz booted ahead but Keith Earls, who continued at centre alongside Lifeimi Mafi, came to the visitors’ rescue.
O’Gara, the man-of-the-match in the home leg, missed the opportunity to level the scores with a drop goal after 12 minutes. But referee Pearson had already signalled for a penalty and the tournament’s record points scorer made no mistake with his first place-kick of the afternoon.
Perpignan came again and neat work from Romanian hooker Marius Tincu found Mele in a gaping hole but the ever ready Wallace produced an excellent recovery tackle to stem the tide.
Munster skipper O’Connell had been influential in the early exchanges, soaring high in the lineouts and restarts and carrying well as the first half wore on.
O’Connell gained an important chunk of ground inside the Perpignan 22, he was ably supported by Wallace and Warwick who battered away at the line before finally Fogarty scrambled over for a try which O’Gara converted for a 10-3 lead.
Mele missed a routine penalty on 28 minutes but made amends a minute later and then added his third penalty in the 34th minute when Wallace caught Mermoz with a high tackle to reduce the deficit to just one point at the interval.
O’Leary put Munster on the front foot after the restart when he dummied and darted through the home side’s defence, forcing the hosts to concede a penalty in front of the posts which O’Gara fired home.
Then Perpignan prop Jerome Schuster was yellow carded for head-butting Leamy in the 46th minute – it could easily have been red – and O’Gara took full advantage with an ice cool penalty for a 16-9 advantage.
O’Gara was sent to the sin-bin soon after for a late tackle as the game cranked up to fever pitch and both sides attacked with vigour, chasing down high kicks and putting in some thumping tackles at close quarters.
But using their greater European experienced, Munster continued to build momentum as the pressure grew. Warwick hit some smashing kicks out of hand and O’Leary’s box kicks also sent Perpignan back towards their 22.
Just metres away from the home whitewash, Hume saw his attempted clearanced kick charged down by O’Leary and while the ball ran favourably for Perpignan, Munster’s old guard up front soon took the game away from the frustrated hosts.
The outstanding O’Connell and Wallace secured excellent field position and then Warwick’s pinpoint pass allowed winger Hurley, who drifted in on a lovely attacking line, beat Christophe Manas and Mele to touch down in the left corner.
Warwick hammered home a fine conversion from the far touchline for a 23-9 scoreline and although Guilhem Guirado scored an opportunist try on 66 minutes, off a short lineout, Munster ended the game with two well-worked tries.
Taking a pass from O’Gara, replacement de Villiers used his power and pace to roar through a gap in midfield and dot down to the right of the posts. It was certainly a sweet score for the South African centre who was engulfed by his team-mates after sewing up a priceless away win for his side.
But Munster went one better in the last minute, showing their desire to return to European club rugby’s highest altar.
Earls launched a well-judged kick into the right corner, Munster put pressure on the home lineout and with turnover ball snaffled in front of the posts, O’Gara’s grubber kick, which took a favourable deflection, was gobbled up by Howlett for the fourth try. Just reward for another European epic from Munster.