Munster march past Saints
IT was nervy for a while but, in the end, Munster answered the questions that had been posed of them by dispatching a stubborn Northampton 33-19 and qualifying for a semi-final joust in Biarritz in three weeks time.
They did so despite trailing at half-time, after controlling most of the opening exchanges and, worse, losing their captain, Paul O'Connell, even before a ball had been kicked. O'Connell's anticipated recovery from a groin injury failed to materialise.
It has been another sumptuous weekend of Heineken Cup action and this tie added handsomely to the mix. Munster had approached the tie with a certain trepidation because bullish noises had been emanating from the away camp and, when the sides had met in the group stages, Northampton had acquitted themselves with distinction and fancied they knew enough about Tony McGahan's side to be able to take them at their fortress.
It didn't happen because, try as they might, they couldn't break down Munster's formidable defensive unit. Jon Clarke's try towards the end of the first half was the only occasion Munster's line was breached. In response they delivered four good tries of their own: two from Doug Howlett and one apiece from Paul Warwick and Jean de Villiers.
On a day when Ronan O'Gara wasn't as proficient with the boot as he normally is, Munster needed that extra spark of creativity.
Earlier in the day Biarritz edged out the Ospreys in a thrilling contest in San Sebastian to book their place in the last four. The game ended controversially with the Welsh side claiming they should have been awarded a penalty when Dimitri Yachvili blocked an attempted pass at the final ruck. Instead, they were pushed back and out-half Dan Biggar was forced into a futile drop-goal attempt from some distance out. The Basque side held on for a 29-28 victory.
So another great climax is shaping up. The Irish sides are through, but the toughest tests are still to come. To be crowned champions both now face the prospect of winning twice on French soil. Munster must make their way to Biarritz, while Leinster face the winners of today's tie between Toulouse and Stade Francais. Paris awaits whoever is still standing after that.