Earls and Howlett shine in nine-try thriller
Brive 37 Munster 42
They came in their hundreds rather than thousands on this particular pilgrimage -- where the prize on the high altar is considerably less than they are used to competing for at this time of year -- and Munster needed every bit of support to win this extraordinary game.
Munster's Heineken Cup exploits are well chronicled but the drama of this Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final was right up there as they produced a game every bit as hot as the heat it was played in.
It may have been new surroundings for Munster but this game seemed wrapped up inside six minutes as Tony McGahan's men blitzed their hosts for a brace of tries to pull 12-0 in front. Brive may have been more accustomed to the 28 degree temperatures but it was Munster who really turned up the heat from the start as the hosts' brittle defence was smashed wide open.
Doug Howlett was the first to expose them after just two minutes with a run from deep, with the midfield partnership of Sam Tuitupou and Lifeimi Mafi handling before returning to Howlett who drove over the line at the left post.
Ronan O'Gara added the simple conversion and the start Munster had dreamed about got even better four minutes later when Keith Earls broke from inside his own half and with Brive right winger Guillaume Namy prostrate on the ground behind him, the Limerick man made it all the way to the left corner after a couple of flimsy tackles.
Brive's generosity ended at that but the referee's did not and Mafi was lucky to escape without a card for a high tackle on winger Alexis Palisson after 16 minutes.
The home side continued to ramp up their efforts and some quick ball from expert rucking soon had Munster on the back foot. And when lock Retief Uys finished off a flowing move in the 17th minute, which Mathieu Belie converted, Munster's early lead had been reduced to 12-10.
A minute later, Munster were facing a deficit when Fabrice Estebanez waltzed through two missed tackles from Tuitupou and O'Gara for Brive's second try in a minute.
Astonishingly, four minutes later, the game swung in Munster's favour once more when Howlett bagged a terrific breakaway try, which O'Gara converted to give them a 19-17 lead.
But the home side went in 20-19 ahead at half-time thanks to Belie's second penalty of the half, three minutes before the break.
A high tackle from Donncha O'Callaghan was penalised by Belie four minutes after the restart as he stretched the home side's advantage to four points, but Munster took control from then on.
Earls bagged Munster's fourth try of the game in the 47th minute after Howlett's break split the Brive defence and a superb conversion from O'Gara from the left touchline pushed them three points ahead.
And the try-fest continued four minutes later when Peter Stringer -- who had just been introduced -- gathered a stray pass from Scott Spedding to touch down with ease behind the posts.
O'Gara converted and three successful penalties from the out-half saw Munster enjoy a 42-23 lead with just 12 minutes remaining in the match.
But Brive were not finished and an intercept try from Palisson gave the home side some hope. The crowd were then in a frenzy when Shaun Perry grabbed their fourth in the final minute but Munster held on to set up a home quarter-final against Harlequins.
McGahan said that while he was pleased with the way his side hit the ground running, their frailities in defence meant that the game was not closed out.
"We gave away four or five set-pieces at crucial times when we had the momentum to put another dent in them," he said. "We were coming out of our 22 a lot and we certainly made good progress there, but that is the decision-making process that all sides are trying to get right."
McGahan believes Munster have the capability to go on and win the cup, but with Stade Francais and Clermont Auvergne in the other semi-final, not to mention their own semi-final with Harlequins, he thinks it is now a difficult competition to win.
"You have some quality sides in there now dropping down from the Heineken Cup into this competition. [It] gives it added credibility and gives everybody an added opportunity to strive for silverware," he said.
"It is all about results once you are in the quarter-finals. We were well in control with about 10 minutes to go and we just needed to kill it out and walk away from it, but if you give them a foot in the door, any side is going to capitalise on that.
"Our defence has been a strong point of our season so far and I'm sure it will be there for the next few weeks."
Meanwhile, Brive's English centre Jamie Noon pointed to a nightmare start, during which Munster scored two tries in five minutes, as one of the main reasons for his team's downfall.
"Obviously we're massively disappointed to come so close but yet so far. Munster showed real class," he said. "The two wingers [Earls and Howlett] looked very, very dangerous whenever they got the ball and the first 10 minutes we were chasing shadows a little bit.
"But I thought the guys showed serious courage and put in a gutsy performance to get back in that first half. We're obviously disappointed that when we did get back, we leaked another try. I think that showed how dangerous Munster can be when they turn it on."
Scorers -- Brive: Uys, Estebanez, Palisson, Perry tries; Belie 4 cons, 3 pens. Munster: Howlett (2), Earls (2), Stringer tries; O'Gara 4 cons, 3 pens.
Brive: S Spedding; G Namy (R Lespinas 54), J Noon, F Estebanez (S Perry 70), A Palisson; M Belie, A Figuerola; D Kinchagishvili (P Barnard 48), B Cabello (J Bonrepaux 48), P Cardinali (V Kakovin, 48); T Dubarry (A Mela, 54), R Uys (F Domingo 59); G Vosloo, A Claassen, J Le Devedec (S Azoulai 62).
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett, S Tuitupou (J Murphy, 50), L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray (P Stringer 48); W du Preez (M Horan 50), D Varley (M Sherry 54), T Buckley (J Hayes 59); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; D Leamy, D Wallace (N Ronan 66), J Coughlan (D Ryan 60).
Referee: D Pearson (England).
Sunday Indo Sport