O'Gara puts boot into gritty Saints
Munster secure home comforts for quarter-final
MUNSTER did just about enough to secure a home Heineken Cup quarter-final with a narrow win over Northampton at Thomond Park last night in a match that was low in quality but high in tension.
Four penalties from the tournament's record points-scorer Ronan O'Gara got the job done but it was a night when Munster's line-out wobbled and their scrum was totally dismantled, issues that have to be resolved before April.
Wian Du Preez will return to South Africa having nightmares about Euan Murray as the Scottish tight-head and his front-row colleagues drove through time after time but, for Munster and Ireland, there was the encouraging sight of Marcus Horan returning to action for the first time since October.
Northampton showed precious little ambition, seemingly content with the losing bonus point which could book their place in the last eight.
It was Munster's first win over Northampton but not a performance that will live long in the memory. However, the victory continues to propel the two-time champions along the upward graph they have been on since December.
Munster's early intentions were obvious -- rattle the visitors from the off -- and what better way than by launching the aerial bombs that carry the name of a Limerick club situated a few miles across the city?
With the rabid home crowd baying for blood, Saints' much-hyped English winger Chris Ashton spilled the first garryowen and, although equally eulogised full-back Ben Foden fielded Paul Warwick's kick 40 seconds later, he must have immediately empathised with former Gloucester No 15 Henry Paul's torrid experience here in 2003 as a phalanx of Munster marauders piled into him.
Foden gave away the penalty, O'Gara knocked it over and the home side were 3-0 up with less than two minutes gone. Alan Quinlan seemed to be everywhere as the teams felt each other out and, with Northampton out-half Shane Geraghty back in the pocket, garryowens continuing to be the order of the day, the action played out between the '22s'.
It quickly became evident set-pieces were going to be an issue for Munster, who coughed up their first two line-out throws and conceded a penalty from the second scrum when Euan Murray and Soane Tonga'uiha put the squeeze on.
However, Tomas O'Leary and O'Gara started to call the shots and excellent phase play, with notable contributions from Denis Fogarty and Ian Dowling (a late inclusion for Denis Hurley, who injured his leg in training) saw Munster set up camp on the visitors' '22' until a spill by Warwick under pressure from Geraghty, who was lucky to escape uncensored with a dangerous swinging arm challenge, allowed Saints to relieve the pressure after another utterly dominant scrum secured the penalty.
Good line-out possession led to a Geraghty drop-goal attempt from 45 metres which was well off target. A kick out on the full led to a Munster scrum on half-way and this time referee Romain Poite awarded the home side the penalty, only for O'Gara's kick to drop short.
There was little cohesion from either side, with Munster switching between bludgeon and rapier, both defences in ascendancy and Northampton relying on their set-piece strength with another scrum penalty. It allowed Bruce Reihana to take his turn from 43 metres out and his superb kick tied it up at 3-3 with 31 minutes gone.
A strong run by Jean de Villiers led to Munster working their way into the opposition '22' once more, followed by a decent break by O'Gara and when Northampton committed yet another breakdown offence, the out-half sent his team in 6-3 ahead after a half dominated by the whistle of Monsieur Poite.
The Frenchman continued in the same vein when play resumed and Reihana had an early attempt from the same distance as his first but could not execute on this occasion. Northampton kept the pressure up but the tackles kept going in and Niall Ronan did his bit by winning an excellent turnover.
However, it was still turgid stuff with Saints persisting with their kick-at-all-costs policy and Munster looking edgy and uncertain with their set-piece play.
Poite penalised them once more at scrum-time and this time Geraghty had a pop from 40 metres, an embarrassing scuffed effort that was in keeping with the general play. Munster were crying out for a a moment of inspiration, an O'Leary break or De Villiers surge and off-load, but their scrum was being dismantled by Murray and Co and it was the Saints who began to open up.
Poite missed a blatant forward pass but the Saints moved it left and right and when the penalty came, Geraghty made no mistake to make it 6-6.
Damien Varley came on for Fogarty after 55 minutes together with Donnacha Ryan for Donncha O'Callaghan who looked to have picked up a knock and the pair made an instant impact with quality line-out possession leading to Northampton hands in the ruck and an O'Gara penalty for 9-6.
However, the Saints were not in the mood for capitulation and Hartley nearly scored after blocking down O'Leary's kick. Munster managed to keep out the first wave of scrums but Poite, who had warned Munster he was prepared to show yellow, sin-binned Paul O'Connell for killing the ball at the ruck.
Down a man, the signs looked ominous when Saints began their latest scrum-fest but, stunningly, the home side won a strike against the head and cleared their lines. Thomond Park sensed a turning point.
A couple of committed kick-chase cameos from Doug Howlett with a block down and tackle set up a penalty shot for O'Gara with O'Connell returning from the bin just in time to see his out-half make it 12-6.
Steve Myler was on for Geraghty and kicked the last score of the game which guaranteed a losing bonus but greater ambition would have seen Saints kick for the corner and go for the win. The game was played out with Munster pushing hard in the right-hand corner while Poite ignored injured Saints second row Christian Day on the far side.
The crowd greeted the final whistle with the muted reaction that normally accompanies a draw and, afterwards, man of the match Alan Quinlan likened it to a derby match and these sides could well meet in the same venue come April. This is a victory Munster can, and must, build on but they are the knock-out masters and Heineken Cups are not won in January.
MUNSTER - P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez (M Horan 67), D Fogarty (D Varley 55), J Hayes (T Buckley 70); D O'Callaghan (D Ryan 55), P O'Connell; A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Yellow card: O'Connell 59
NORTHAMPTON - B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler 71), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray; IF Lobbe (C Day 57), J Kruger; C Lawes (N Best 71), P Dowson, R Wilson.
REF - R Poite (France)