Saints fall to mighty Munster

Date published: April 10 2010

Munster won the right to face Biarritz in the Heineken Cup semi-finals courtesy of a tense 33-19 win over Northampton Saints on Saturday.

Munster won the right to face Biarritz in the Heineken Cup semi-finals courtesy of a tense 33-19 win over Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on Saturday.

The visitors weathered an early storm to take an unlikely lead to the break.

But the locals fought back – as only they know how – to crush the rebellion.

This was a victory of wisdom over daring and of experience over youth. In other words, it had it all!

Indeed, the two-time champions – looking for their ninth appearance in Europe's last four – needed all their nous to scrape past a young Saints side that lit up Thomond Park with some dazzling play before succumbing to Ronan O'Gara's boot.

O'Gara had an average day off the tee, making five out of eight shots at goal, but his masterful kicking out of hand after the break ultimately ground Saints into submission.

The only English club still standing in the competition were also battered on the try-count following a brace from Doug Howlett and one each from Paul Warwick and Jean de Villiers.

Jon Clarke crossed to help Saints to a 16-13 half-time lead that slipped from their grasp amid O'Gara's barrage of long touch-finders in the latest of the weekend's quarter-final thrillers.

Fly-half Stephen Myler contributed 14 points, booting five from five to justify his selection ahead of Shane Geraghty.

In the build-up Munster faced suggestions they are a fading force with their Limerick fortress ripe to be stormed for only the second time in 15 years of European competition.

Saints' players had queued up to deny Thomond Park was a ground to be feared after going down only 12-9 here in the pool stages in January and while they refused to be intimidated, talk of Munster's demise was clearly premature.

Munster sorely missed their influential captain Paul O'Connell, who withdrew from the line-up despite appearing to have recovered from a groin problem.

In O'Connell's absence they lacked leadership until the final 20 minutes when O'Gara, captain on the day, stepped into the breach by expertly steering them home.

Fired up with their backs against the wall following a week of searching questions, Munster came out swinging and were 8-0 up after just five minutes. First O'Gara landed a penalty and then a powerful drive from Munster's pack created a great position for the three-quarters to attack.

Tomas O'Leary fired a long pass to Keith Earls whose straight run created space for Warwick and the full-back raced over after shrugging off a tackle from James Downey.

Saints were in survival mode as the sell-out 26,000 roared its approval at Munster's blistering start, but the visitors soon rallied.

Using marauding prop Soane Tonga'uiha as their main battering ram, they pushed the two-time champions onto the back foot and won two penalties in quick succession which Myler stroked over.

But Saints cracked again in the 24th minute when Howlett squeezed in at the right corner, riding tackles by Bruce Reihana and Phil Dowson.

A dynamic break from England's Chris Ashton ended with a penalty that Myler slotted over, slashing the deficit to 13-9.

The charged atmosphere resulted in moments of madness from both sides, but the home fans were hushed into silence when Saints crossed with unnerving ease on the stroke of half-time.

Neil Best made the initial inroads with a muscular drive and when the ball was released moments later the visiting backs gazed upon acres of open space. All it took to capitalise on the two-man overlap was quick hands and they made no mistake, Ben Foden delivering the scoring pass to Clarke who cruised in with Myler converting.

Munster were horribly disjointed early in the second half but a monster touch-finder from O'Gara put them back on the front foot.

They won two consecutive five-metre scrums and struck on the second, releasing to De Villiers who ran hard between Myler and inside centre James Downey.

This time O'Gara hit the conversion and the Ireland fly-half then exchanged penalties with Myler before producing two more crucial long kicks to pin Saints back.

Saints said they had prepared tactics to prevent being manoeuvred around the pitch by O'Gara's boot but they clearly were not working.

England fly-half Geraghty replaced Myler but it was still all Munster, a fact rammed home when O'Gara landed his third penalty.

Saints' discipline was deteriorating, but they nearly worked their way over in the 70th minute only for a try-saving tackle from Earls to keep out Juandre Kruger.

But Munster had the final at the opposite end, Howlett finishing from a set-piece move after O'Leary produced a brilliant offload.

Man of the match: Jon Clarke and Lee Dickson were busy for the Saints, as was their trio of dynamic loose forwards. But the gong will remain in Ireland. Alan Quinlan was immense in attack and defence and Tomas O'Leary marshalled his forwards with aplomb. But we'll opt for stand-in skipper, Ronan O'Gara, who overcame a shaky start to crush all hope from English hearts with some fine tactical kicking in the second half, shunting both packs this way and that.

The scorers:

For Munster:
Tries: Warwick, Howlett 2, De Villiers
Cons: O'Gara
Pens: O'Gara 2

For Northampton Saints:
Tries: Clarke
Cons: Myler
Pens: Myler 4

The teams:

Munster: 15 Paul Warwick, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Ian Dowling, 10 Ronan O'Gara (capt), 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 James Coughlan, 7 David Wallace, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Mick O'Driscoll, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Julian Brugnaut, 18 Tony Buckley, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Nick Williams, 21 Niall Ronan, 22 Peter Stringer, 23 Lifeimi Mafi.

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

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)
Television match official: Derek Bevan (Wales)