Injured captain Paul O’Connell proudly watched on from the stand as Ronan O’Gara guided Munster to a memorable Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Northampton Saints at Thomond Park, with the hosts outscoring Jim Mallinder’s side by four tries to one.
HEINEKEN CUP: QUARTER-FINAL: Saturday, April 10
MUNSTER 33 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 19, Thomond Park
Scorers: Munster: Tries: Paul Warwick, Doug Howlett 2, Jean de Villiers; Cons: Ronan O’Gara 2; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 3
Northampton Saints: Try: Jon Clarke; Con: Stephen Myler; Pens: Stephen Myler 4
Munster’s greater big match experience helped them pull clear of Northampton in the end, as the sides played out a pulsating encounter at a packed out Thomond Park.
The two-time Heineken Cup champions needed all their nous to scrape past a young Saints side that kept in the hunt before succumbing to Ronan O’Gara’s boot.
O’Gara, Munster’s captain in the injury-enforced absence of Paul O’Connell, landed three penalties and two conversions and kicked brilliantly out of hand, particularly in the second half.
Speaking afterwards, Munster coach Tony McGahan paid tribute to his out-half’s ability to boss a game.
“Ronan was fantastic – he was at his best today with his game management,” admitted McGahan, whose side will face Biarritz Olympique away in the semi-finals.
“He controlled everything and that was a big part of our game. We needed him today.”
Northampton, the only English club to qualify for the quarter-finals, were also battered on the try count following a brace from Doug Howlett and one each from Paul Warwick and Jean de Villiers.
Jon Clarke crossed to help the Saints to a 16-13 half-time lead that slipped from their grasp amid O’Gara’s barrage of long touchfinders in the third of the weekend’s quarter-final thrillers.
Northampton out-half Stephen Myler contributed 14 points, booting five from five to justify his selection ahead of Shane Geraghty.
In the build-up, Munster faced suggestions that they are a fading force with their Limerick fortress ripe to be stormed for only the second time in 15 years of European competition.
The Northampton players queued up to deny Thomond Park was a ground to be feared after going down only 12-9 here in the pool stages in January and while they refused to be intimidated, talk of Munster’s demise was clearly premature.
The hosts did suffer a pre-match setback when inspirational skipper O’Connell was withdrawn from the team due to a groin problem. Mick O’Driscoll came straight into the second row, with Billy Holland added to the bench.
Fired up with their backs against the wall following a week of searching questions, Munster came out swinging and were 8-0 up after just five minutes.
First O’Gara landed a penalty and then a powerful drive from Munster’s pack created a great position for their back-line to attack.
Man-of-the-match Tomas O’Leary fired a long pass out to Keith Earls whose straight run created space for Warwick and the full-back raced over after shrugging off a tackle from former Munster squad member James Downey.
The Saints were in survival mode. The sell-out 26,000-strong crowd roared its approval at Munster’s blistering start, but the visitors soon rallied.
Using powerful prop Soane Tonga’uiha as their main battering ram, they pushed the men in red onto the back foot and won two penalties in quick succession which Myler stroked over.
But the Saints cracked again in the 24th minute when Howlett took a superb pass from O’Gara and squeezed in at the right corner, riding tackles from Bruce Reihana and Phil Dowson.
A terrific break from the dangerous Chris Ashton ended with a penalty that Myler slotted over, slashing the deficit to 13-9.
The super-charged atmosphere resulted in moments of madness from both sides, but the home fans were hushed into silence when the Saints crossed with unnerving ease on the stroke of half-time.
Ireland flanker Neil Best made the initial inroads with a muscular drive and when the ball was released moments later the visiting backs gazed upon acres of open space on the left.
All it took to capitalise on the two-man overlap was quick hands and they made no mistake, Ben Foden delivering the scoring pass to Clarke who cruised in with Myler converting.
Munster looked disjointed early in the second half but a monster touchfinder from O’Gara put them back on the front foot.
They won two consecutive five-metre scrums and struck on the second, releasing Springbok star de Villiers who ran hard between Myler and Downey to round in behind the posts.
O’Gara added the conversion and the Heineken Cup’s record points scorer then exchanged penalties with Myler before producing two more crucial long kicks to pin Northampton back.
Jim Mallinder’s men said they had prepared tactics to prevent being manoeuvred around the pitch by O’Gara’s trusty right boot but they clearly were not working.
Add in some excellent performances from Munster all over the pitch, chief amongst them being scrum half O’Leary, the entire front row (particularly Marcus Horan), marauding flanker David Wallace and number 8 James Coughlan who was making his first European start.
Geraghty replaced Myler but it was still all Munster, a fact rammed home when O’Gara landed his third penalty.
Northampton’s discipline was deteriorating, but they nearly worked their way over in the 70th minute only for a try-saving tackle from Earls to keep out Juandre Kruger.
But Munster had the final sat at the opposite end, Howlett finishing from a set piece move after O’Leary produced a sumptuous offload to put the Kiwi over. O’Gara sent over a brilliant conversion from wide out on the right to put the seal on another red letter day for his native province.
Job done and with Thomond rocking, Munster’s love affair with Europe just goes on and on. Biarritz beware.
TIME LINE: 2 minutes – Munster penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 5 mins – Munster try: Paul Warwick – 8-0; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 8-0; 11 mins – Northampton Saints penalty: Stephen Myler – 8-3; 17 mins – Northampton Saints penalty: Stephen Myler – 8-6; 24 mins – Munster try: Doug Howlett – 13-6; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 13-6; 29 mins – Northampton Saints penalty: Stephen Myler – 13-9; 40 mins – Northampton Saints try: Jon Clarke – 13-14; conversion: Stephen Myler – 13-16; Half-time – Munster 13 Northampton Saints 16; 53 mins – Munster try: Jean de Villiers – 18-16; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 20-16; 56 mins – Northampton Saints penalty: Stephen Myler – 20-19; 59 mins – Munster penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 23-19; 62 mins – Munster penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 23-19; 68 mins – Munster penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 26-19; 75 mins – Munster try: Doug Howlett – 31-19; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 33-19; Full-time – Munster 33 Northampton Saints 19
MUNSTER: Paul Warwick; Doug Howlett, Keith Earls, Jean de Villiers, Ian Dowling; Ronan O’Gara (capt), Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, James Coughlan.
Replacements used: Lifeimi Mafi for Dowling (42 mins), Nick Williams for Coughlan (63), Tony Buckley for Hayes (70), Niall Ronan for Quinlan (72), Billy Holland for O’Callaghan (78), Peter Stringer for O’Leary (79). Not used: Damien Varley, Julien Brugnaut.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke, James Downey, Bruce Reihana; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson; Soane Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley (capt), Euan Murray, Courtney Lawes, Juandre Kruger, Phil Dowson, Neil Best, Roger Wilson.
Replacements used: Brian Mujati for Murray (57 mins), Shane Geraghty for Myler (66), Joe Ansbro for Clarke, Mark Easter for Dowson (both 72). Not used: Brett Sharman, Regardt Dreyer, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, Alan Dickens.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)