Munster were left with just a losing bonus point to show for their efforts at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday as Tony McGahan’s men opened their Heineken Cup Pool campaign with a 31-27 defeat to Northampton Saints.
An eye-catching display from Shane Geraghty helped Northampton celebrate their return to the Heineken Cup after a three-season absence with a narrow victory in a pulsating tie at Franklin’s Gardens.
Northampton’s lively number 10 scored one try and created two others in a 21-point haul which helped the Saints repeat their victory over Munster in the 2000 final, which was the only European previous meeting between these two clubs.
Geraghty, who played for Ireland at underage level, turned a tight game Northampton’s way with an opportunist try on the stroke of half-time – tapping and running a penalty when Munster expected him to kick for goal.
But it was Geraghty’s 75th-minute penalty which finally killed off Munster’s stirring fightback, led by four penalties from Ronan O’Gara and a fast-breaking try from Tomas O’Leary.
In the end Munster were left to regret a sleepy start in which they looked shaky early on. It was not until they were eight points down that the 2008 champions began to play with any cohesion and conviction.
O’Gara was off target with an early penalty attempt, and the hesitancy of his half-back partner O’Leary was seized upon by an eager Northampton side that contained Irishmen James Downey, Neil Best and Roger Wilson.
Geraghty nudged Northampton ahead with a ninth minute penalty and then set up the opening try with a deft chip ahead that Munster full-back Paul Warwick fumbled. The ball bounced kindly for winger Chris Ashton, who dotted down.
Warwick partly atoned for his error when he opened Munster’s account with a brilliant 50-metre drop goal, and the fight back continued with a superb try from counter attack deep in their own half.
Keith Earls spotted that Northampton were over-committed in attack, and his deft kick through allowed supporting flanker David Wallace to pick up and cross for a try that O’Gara surprisingly failed to improve.
The kicking improved, Geraghty and O’Gara each slotting two penalties which left the scores level at 14-14. Another Geraghty penalty appeared likely when Munster were penalised for handling in a ruck, but the province made the elementary error of turning their backs on him.
Instead of kicking for goal, Geraghty tapped the penalty and scythed through for a quick-thinking try which he also converted.
Making a swift start to the second half, Geraghty teed up a second try for Ashton with a superb break and inside pass that gave the winger an easy run-in.
Geraghty took his points tally to 18 by adding the conversion but was off target with a 53rd minute penalty – and O’Gara kept chipping away at Northampton’s lead.
Munster maintained the pressure and set up a nerve-jangling finale when O’Leary snaked over from a short side break from a scrum close to Northampton’s 22. O’Gara reduced the lead to a point with a well-struck conversion, setting up a granstand finish to arguably the match of the Heineken Cup’s opening round.
But Geraghty had the final word, calmly slotting the clinching penalty after Munster were penalised at a scrum in front of their own posts – although Northampton had to withstand a furious, late forward barrage from the men in red before they were confirmed as victors.