Munster 23-21 Northampton
Saturday 12th November @ Thomond Park
Northampton bravely put in the tackles, out on their feet by now. Mafi came onto the ball. Surely Munster would knock on? Leamy’s carry was followed yet again by Ronan. Murphy, Varley, O’Leary all bravely took turns to carry. O’Connell came forward, the 30th phase by now! This had to end with a spilled ball… Murphy powered into contact, Munster edged closer to Northampton’s 22. Hayes, the Heineken Cup centurion, took his turn. Leamy again. O’Gara was in the pocket now, middle of the pitch, on the ten-metre line. O’Connell played scrumhalf and threw the ball back to O’Gara…
But no, under pressure O’Gara moved the ball to Howlett, who broke through a tired tackle and for a moment looked as if he might go all the way. Next, Mafi was smashed out on the right hand side. O’Connell carried, then Leamy went forward. O’Gara, still up in the line, jinked and hit the inside runner, the 40th phase! Munster won the ruck. Leamy stood over the ball. O’Gara in the pocket. Leamy spun a perfect pass to O’Gara, standing on the ten-metre line. This time, O’Gara had the space to strike. The ball flew high into the Limerick night air, the will of every Munster fan behind it. Seemingly in slow motion, it flew straight and true. O’Gara punched the air and for a second it felt like Munster had won the Heineken Cup, rather than simply securing a home win in their first pool match.
A fitting end to a thrilling Heineken Cup encounter, showcasing once again just how exciting this competition can be. The match started explosively after Munster won a lineout five metres from Northampton’s line. Man of the Match Peter O’Mahony set his stall out by putting pressure on Ashton and then Foden, forcing them into conceding the lineout. Varley hit Ryan in the middle and a dynamic shove led to Varley touching down at the back of the maul. O’Gara added the conversion to put Munster into a 7-0 lead after only 3 minutes.
Ryan Lamb fell just short with his first penalty effort in the 7th minute. Northampton then gave a counter attacking master class. From a Murray clearance down the line, Artemyev carried with pace from his own half and offloaded to Ashton who released Foden on the other side of the pitch. Foden drew Howlett as Ashton worked hard to get to his fullback’s outside shoulder. Foden sent his England teammate over in the corner, a magnificent example of a back three countering as a unit. Lamb converted well from the touchline.
The Saints lead was extended soon after when Munster dragged down a maul and Lamb put the penalty over. Lamb was successful with another penalty in the 20th minute after Varley went off his feet at ruck-time. Northampton led 13-7 and were more than matching Munster up front. Jim Mallinder’s side looked to put width on their attack, moving the ball into wider channels at every opportunity. A bad pass from Lawes led to one particularly promising passage of play breaking down.
Munster continued to play their rugby in Northampton’s half. After Tongauiha was penalised for driving in and up at a scrum, O’Gara did the honours to narrow the gap. Munster then went over for a crucial try right on the stroke of half time. Lamb kicked aimlessly and O’Mahony carried back well. Murray then broke and offloaded out of the tackle to Barnes. After recycling the ball, Howlett found himself at first receiver and managed to slip through a gap in the Saints defence. He stepped the despairing tackle of Foden and dived over to the right of the posts. O’Gara made no mistake with the convert leaving Munster with a 17-13 half time lead.
Immediately after the break, O’Gara was back over the tee. This time he slotted a penalty when Nigel Owens pinged the Saints for offside after an Artemyev knock on. Munster were punished for the same offence minutes later and Lamb knocked over the penalty, 20-16 to Munster.
In the 56th minute, Northampton retook the lead. After Wilson had trucked it up the middle, the Saints broke back down the blind side and former Munster centre James Downey powered over. Lamb pulled his conversion to the left of the posts, leaving his side with a one point lead, 21-20.
Ten minutes later, Northampton had a gilt-edged opportunity to take the game from Munster’s reach. After Downey had put them on the front foot, a flat pass from Lamb sent Ashton down the touchline. Artemyev kicked Ashton’s offload ahead and then with the line at his mercy he knocked on his attempted pick up. Relief for Munster.
As wholesale changes were made on both sides, Munster started to get on top. Lamb was now happy to kick deep back to Munster, anything to relieve the pressure in the Saints half. O’Gara missed a penalty effort with ten minutes to go. But Munster never stopped believing. With time running out and Northampton still leading, the stage was set for the breathless finale.
Photo courtesy: Henry Southgate