Munster required a 78th minute penalty from Ronan O’Gara to end Montauban’s stubborn resistance and avoid what would have been one of the biggest shocks in Heineken Cup history.
In the pre-match build-up, new coach Tony McGahan admitted that Munster would be gunning for all five points in their Pool 1 opener, but all talk of bonus points quickly evaporated at a shell-shocked Thomond Park.
The defending champions trailed on three separate occasions at their new stadium, with Romanian scrum half Petre Mitu’s fourth penalty success putting Montauban within three-and-a-half minutes of a famous win.
But Ronan O’Gara, the tournament’s record points scorer, rained on the visitors’ parade when he slotted that late kick to save his side’s bacon and finally soothe the nervy home crowd.
Montauban, the 55th club to grace Europe’s premier competition, travelled north with a largely second string line-up, making ten changes to the team that lost 34-16 to Stade Francais last weekend.
And while Munster fielded their strongest possible side, their ill-advised intentions to thrill all at their redeveloped Limerick home, coupled with Montauban’s rugged defending, made for an error-ridden first half.
The nuggety Mitu kicked well behind an industrious pack, in which English number 8 Matthew Clarkin carried and harried with purpose.
His France-capped back row colleagues Yannick Caballero and Marc Raynaud stood out too, as Munster grew frustrated by their lack of accuracy and momentum.
They paid for their over-eagerness with five handling errors in the opening quarter – nerves getting the better of Heineken Cup debutant Keith Earls on a couple of occasions.
Montauban edged ahead in the sixth minute when Mitu, not a regular goal-kicker in the Top 14, landed a penalty from distance.
Munster struggled to get to grips with referee Wayne Barnes’ interpretation of the breakdown and were forcing things as Montauban fanned out and soaked up the pressure.
Mitu missed his second shot at the posts and Munster managed to up the tempo before half-time, levelling first through an O’Gara penalty before replacement Barry Murphy muscled over for a relieving try.
Finding some space on the right, Murphy stepped inside two defenders before crashing over and after confirmation of the grounding from TMO Graham Hughes, O’Gara’s conversion put the hosts 10-3 ahead for the break.
Unbeaten in the Magners League, Munster looked primed to canter away from Montauban in the second half.
But maintaining their poise, Raynaud and his team-mates continued to play intelligently and suck the life out of the champions, spoiling superbly and creating kicking chances for Mitu.
The number 9 was successful with two out of his three shots at the posts, coming up to the hour mark, allowing Montauban to stay competitive and within four points (13-9).
At the other end, O’Gara had bisected the posts after Paul O’Connell was held up short, but the prospect of Montauban becoming only the second team to win a European tie at Thomond Park – Leicester Tigers did so in January 2007 – grew thanks to their 57th-minute try.
A poor pass from Alan Quinlan, close to the halfway line, bounced forward off Rida Jahouer’s head and winger Sylvain Jonnet hared up to hack on the loose ball and beat David Wallace to the touchdown.
Mitu failed to convert and missed kicks eventually cost Laurent Labit’s charges, despite O’Gara pinging a 61st-minute effort off the post.
In a nail-biting finish, Munster’s greater experience saw them survive as a composed O’Gara kicked two timely penalties, taking his tally to 14 points and cruelly bringing Montauban back down to earth.