Munster snag a home berth

Date published: January 23 2010

Munster will play a home Heineken Cup quarter-final after a rugged 12-9 win over Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on Friday.

Munster will play a home Heineken Cup quarter-final after a rugged 12-9 win over Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on Friday.

The Saints, given one final chance to run the ball for glory at the death, opted to kick for touch, take the bonus point and hope that results go their way over the weekend so they can be one of the lucky runners-up. It was an odd finale to a compelling game.

This was not the classic it was billed to be. Teams are mostly too well drilled for that these days. But it was an intriguing a tactical battle for the purist as you could wish for.

It yielded barely any action that was worthy of description, but so much that was worthy of in-depth analysis.

You could see from the stats alone how well the coaching staff had monitored their opponents. Munster's first three penalties of the match all came for holding on on the ground, all as a result of there being four chasers by every catcher after a high ball. Northampton's counter-attacking threat was nullified from the outset – and not by coincidence did Chris Ashton and Alan Quinlan clash four times out on Ashton's wing during the first ten minutes.

Northampton bullied Munster in the scrum, with Munster wheeling and collapsing as much as possible – four penalties came Northampton's way for such offences, in truth it could have been a whole lot more. But for their efforts, the ball control of the Saints' pack was poor when they had it, including one crucial moment in the second half which may well have cost them the spoils.

Both sides had done their homework in the line-outs, meaning neither could get steady clean ball. With scrums on both sides at fault as well, no fewer than six of the first eleven set pieces of the match went against the throw or the head, a staggering statistic at this level. Indeed, you'd think that so much turnover ball would bring some form of tryzone action but both defences were so tight there was not a bit of it.

In the final reckoning, the Saints lost for three reasons, two surrounding the unfortunate Shane Geraghty. He did not take the ball flat enough to get his backs into the game, nor did he kick nearly as well as his counterpart O'Gara and his able sidekick Paul Warwick, either from tee or from hand.

The other was the unforgiveable waste of the one gilt-edged tryscoring opportunity they had. With a succession of 5m scrums making the Munster pack creak like the mouldiest of floorboards and testing the admirable patience of referee Romain Poite, and with Paul O'Connell kicking his heels in the sin-bin, the ball was hooked by Dylan Hartley but then inexplicably shot into the Munster side. The crowd's reaction was as though a try had been scored. The ball was cleared as, ultimately, was the danger of the game slipping out of Munster's claws.

But Munster might make few friends from this. Once again they won a game using all the imagination of a bored actuarist, with a fair few dollops of unsightly attempts to intimidate the referee. Romain Poite was exceptional on the night and his use of the words 'This is my game, not yours' to Paul O'Connell was a clear indication of how much verbeage the Irishman directed in Poite's direction. When O'Connell was sin-binned, it was O'Gara who took over the bleating. Not a very sightly occurrence and not one befitting one of Europe's supposedly more noble teams.

The initial exchanges were nervous and hurried from both teams, although Munster edged ahead through an O'Gara penalty inside three minutes.

But solid work by the Saints pack, particularly in the lineouts through Juandre Kruger, meant Munster were unable to settle as a tense opening quarter concluded with Northampton relishing the physical combat.

Their appetite was also evident at scrum-time, where Murray made life distinctly uncomfortable for Munster loosehead Wiaan du Preez, and Saints drew level nine minutes before half-time.

Reihana rifled over a 48-metre penalty that rewarded Saints' set-piece efforts, but the visitors were then pinned inside their own 22 with half-time looming.

A second O'Gara penalty restored Munster's lead, yet there remained plenty of hope for Northampton that they could emulate Leicester's achievement of three years ago and win a Heineken tie in Limerick.

Reihana missed a long-range penalty chance to tie the score four minutes after the restart, but Saints had another opportunity five minutes later, this time wasted by Geraghty.

Geraghty, demoted from senior England duty to the Saxons squad ahead of this season's Six Nations Championship, looked short on confidence, and his scuffed kick provided little in the way of a boost.

He managed to find his range after 53 minutes, but Munster quickly regained a three-point advantage when O'Gara completed a penalty hat-trick.

It proved the cue though, for Northampton to storm back upfield as skipper Dylan Hartley charged down Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary's attempted clearance.

And Munster panicked under pressure, with O'Connell punished by French referee Romain Poite for hands in the ruck as Northampton attempted to turn the scrummaging screw.

A sin-binned O'Connell could only look on amid escalating Saints pressure, yet Munster somehow kept their shape – even with their New Zealand wing Doug Howlett pressed into emergency back-row scrum duty.

O'Gara and Myler then exchanged penalties during the final 10 minutes, but Munster's superior experience in high-octane European encounters saw them through as the mist descended on Thomond Park.

The scorers:

For Munster:
Pens: O'Gara 4

For Northampton:
Pens: Reihana, Geraghty, Myler

Munster: 15 Paul Warwick, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Denis Hurley, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 David Wallace, 7 Niall Ronan, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Paul O'Connell (capt), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Denis Fogarty, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Tony Buckley, 19 Donncha Ryan, 20 James Coughlan, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Lifiemi Mafi, 23 Ian Dowling.

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jon Clarke, 12 James Downey, 11 Bruce Reihana, 10 Shane Geraghty, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Brian Mujati, 19 Christian Day, 20 Neil Best, 21 Alan Dickens, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Chris Mayor.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Eric Soulan (France), Bernard Dal Maso (France)
Television match official: Jean-Christophe Gastou.