Howlett delivers killer blow
IT was nowhere near as comfortable as the scoreline suggested but Munster got there anyway.
Yesterday they lined up for their 12th quarter-final in this competition and, as they have done on eight previous occasions, they successfully manoeuvred their way into another semi-final, seeing off another upstart in the process. Northampton had come to Limerick as bullish as any team had a right to be. They had some answers, but not nearly enough.
The English side contributed handsomely to a spellbinding tie and Munster had to survive a few troubled patches, but it would have been a travesty had the home team lost. For the most part, Tony McGahan's team managed to stem Northampton's huge firepower up front and most of the creative moments belonged to them. They scored four tries to the visitor's one: tries made by forwards via mauls or scrums and finished by backs. It was a vintage 15-man display.
And a lot closer than might have seemed early on. When Ronan O'Gara sent the first kick of the evening floating into the air, it seemed to hang for an eternity under the waiting arms of Jon Clarke. The centre has lots of experience at this level but, faced with a barrage of on-rushing red jerseys, Clarke flapped at the ball and, in the chaos that ensued, Northampton conceded a penalty.
For a team that had arrived at one of rugby's most forbidding venues entertaining serious notions of winning, it seemed the most crushing of starts. Such little rugby had been played and, yet, they were already 3-0 behind. And worse was to follow before they found their stride.
Even by Thomond standards, Munster's commitment to the early exchanges was ferocious. You could see it in James Coughlan. The back-row was making his first start in this competition and was keen to make an early impression, charging down a Ben Foden-clearance, then bundling Bruce Reihana into touch. Munster were bereft of the injured Paul O'Connell, their spiritual leader, but they had others willing to step forward in his absence.
By the fifth minute it looked like Northampton had a mountain to climb. Keith Earls had sent Paul Warwick clear for Munster's opening try and, alongside Jean de Villiers, Munster's lively backs were causing their opponents all manner of trouble. De Villiers knew this could easily be his last big game at Thomond Park and he played with a solid determination to leave his mark.
And so it went. Munster screaming forward, Northampton swaying on the ropes, happy just to execute the odd retaliatory blow. Two penalties from the boot of Stephen Myler kept them interested. Myler was in the side at the expense of Shane Geraghty, a more artistic out-half. Northampton knew this wasn't a day for creativity. Against the fierceness of Munster's opening onslaught, it was Myler's solid boot that kept them in touch.
At times the speed of Munster's thought and play was electrifying. When O'Gara spotted that Northampton were short of cover on the right he was on hand in a flash, taking Tomas O'Leary's pass and releasing Doug Howlett on his left. The Kiwi had work to do but managed to pivot away from the close attention of Reihana and Phil Dowson and scramble over the line for Munster's second try. O'Gara failed to convert, but Munster had a decent lead.
And then, with brute suddenness, things started to get difficult. Myler chipped away at the lead with a third penalty and Northampton gained a grip on the game that had eluded them for half an hour. Suddenly they were pushing into Munster territory and testing the home team's cover on both sides of the pitch.
Munster creaked and Clarke dived over on the left and the cathedral went deathly quiet. By stealth Northampton had eased themselves in front.
If losing the lead was hard on Munster, it stopped some way short of calamity. You knew they would have the aid of a generous breeze in the second half and that would play firmly into O'Gara's hands. And it was a thunderous kick from inside his own half 10 minutes after the restart that finally set Thomond alight again. Pinned back near their line, Northampton were having their creative life squeezed out of them. Exactly what the occasion demanded.
This time it led to a Munster scrum close to the line. The set-piece was wonderfully orchestrated and when the ball was fed to O'Leary he had De Villiers in support on his outside and the centre burst over the line with unstoppable force. The South African had left his mark, though it was John Hayes who took most of the accolades from thankful colleagues.
From there a lot of little things seemed to go Munster's way. When Myler kicked a penalty to tighten things again, O'Gara restored daylight moments later. Then Marcus Horan charged down a kick inside the Northampton 22 and won a penalty when he was hauled back. O'Gara mis-sed but managed one from the opposite side soon after. Munster enjoyed the relative luxury of a seven-point lead.
By then Northampton had played their final card -- swapping Myler for Geraghty -- and Munster could never relax. Geraghty did manage to make an impression when making a neat incision into Munster's 22 and disaster looked imminent for the home side until the final pass fell into the arms of Juandre Kru-ger, Northampton's imposing but slow second-row forward. Kruger was only yards from the line but was tackled into touch before he reached it.
And so a blistering game rattled to a conclusion. Munster steadied their nerves when they controlled another scrum close to Northampton's line and O'Leary was blessed with time to send Howlett crashing over. Munster were comfortable again. The game ended just as it had begun.
Scorers -- Munster: Howlett 2, Warwick, De Villiers tries; O'Gara 3 pens, 2 cons. Northampton: Clarke try; Myler 4 pens, con.
Munster: P Warwick, D Howlett, K Earls, J De Villiers, I Dowling (L Mafi 42), R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 78), M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes (T Buckley 69), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (B Holland 77), A Quinlan (N Ronan 62), D Wallace, J Coughlan (N Williams 62)
Northampton: B Foden, C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downely, B Reihana, S Myler (S Geraghty 65), L Dickson, S Tongauhia, D Hartley, E Murray (B Mujati 65), C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson (M Easter 72), N Best, R Wilson.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).