Munster showed their mettle as they recovered from conceding a late try to wrestle back the points against three-try Perpignan at Thomond Park on Friday.
South African replacement Philip Burger scored a sensational 70th-minute try to give Perpignan a great chance of repeating Leicester Tigers’ shock 2007 win at Thomond Park.
But, in a tension-filled finish, Perpignan’s discipline ultimately let them down as a high tackle from flanker Bertrand Guiry teed up Ronan O’Gara for the match-winning penalty, keeping Munster on track to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the twelfth successive year.
The famous Limerick venue was stunned into silence when flanker Yoann Vivalda and scrum half Nicolas Durand scored a try apiece in a strong opening quarter from the reigning French champions.
However, the brilliant O’Gara was back to his usual metronome self, squaring up the game with four penalty goals and four more successful kicks, including a drop goal off his weaker left foot, edged Tony McGahan’s men home.
Munster set out their stall with an early penalty success from O’Gara, who was under considerable pressure to deliver after being dropped for Ireland’s recent clash with South Africa.
But Perpignan powered back, profiting from an ill-advised Lifeimi Mafi kick from a pass back into the Munster 22.
The subsequent lineout was tapped down on the Munster side by skipper Paul O’Connell, only for Vivalda to quickly gobble up the loose ball and charge over from ten metres out.
Jerome Porical’s missed conversion was followed by a drilled penalty from O’Gara but just three minutes later, the Catalan side were celebrating their second try.
Robins Tchale Watchou secured lineout possession outside the hosts’ 22, hooker Guilhem Guirado sprung clear off a ruck and Guiry took the ball on before Durand outfoxed Doug Howlett with a superb step and run in at the left corner.
Porical added the conversion and he was narrowly off target with a penalty from distance, midway through what was a hard-fought and forwards-dominated first half.
Munster bossed territory for the duration but Perpignan’s defence was largely watertight. O’Gara’s assured place-kicking – he knocked over four of his first five attempts – saw the 2006 and 2008 European champions draw level at 12-12 for half-time.
He punished Tchale Watchou for a ruck offence on 26 minutes, and four minutes before the break an impressive kick chase – with Howlett hammering Porical in the tackle – allowed O’Gara boot his side back on terms.
Perpignan opened the second half with great intent, David Marty and Farid Sid probing the wings and making headway towards the Munster 22.
The home side hit back as the game ebbed and flowed with defences again on top. What yardage Munster could make came through O’Gara’s right boot or the determined ball carrying of back rowers Alan Quinlan and Denis Leamy.
O’Gara and Perpignan full-back Porical traded penalties, and hooker Denis Fogarty saved Munster’s bacon by claiming a Durand crossfield kick as Perpignan pressed for a third try.
The visitors’ dominant scrum and clever work off the breakdown caused plenty of problems for Munster, but again O’Gara came up trumps, landing a drop goal and a penalty for a 21-15 lead with 16 minutes to go.
Replacement David Mele converted a penalty to ensure a nervy finish for the home fans and Burger made a few spit out their chips when he scored a sublime solo try.
The former Cheetahs player collected a garryowen from Paul Warwick outside the Perpignan 22 before using his pace to blast his way up the left touchline and outstrip Warwick and O’Gara for the corner.
Mele was narrowly wide with his conversion attempt and frustratingly for the Top 14 outfit, their good work was undone when Guiry caught Mafi with a high tackle and man-of-the-match O’Gara did what he does best.
Denis Hurley crossed the Perpignan try-line just moments later but the match officials ruled out the score for a knock-on from the Munster winger as he darted into space off a midfield ruck, close to the left touchline.
In the end, O’Gara’s 24-point haul was enough to drive the province to their second win in Pool 1 – they top the group by four points ahead of next weekend’s return leg at Perpignan’s base of Stade Aime Giral.