Northampton withstood a ferocious rally by Munster to win a Heineken Cup battle that truly touched the heights. And Shane Geraghty was as close to world-class as you can get in the face of such ferocity. The Northampton fly-half, watched by the England manager, Martin Johnson, and attack coach, Brian Smith, shone in a match that had all that is so wonderful about this competition.
The man England must pick to face Australia at Twickenham next month was outstandingt, scoring 21 points including a solo try of astonishing audacity and creating two tries for the wing Chris Ashton.
Northampton's director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, said: "I've seen Shane play since under-20 level and he is a special talent. What he did out there was to top off a lot of good performances around him. The lad sees spaces and he makes things happen. Martin Johnson has a decision to make, whether he considers him a fly-half or an inside centre. If you're asking me where I would pick him, I would be perfectly happy with his abilities in either jersey."
For Munster, the Lions and Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara extended his astonishing Heineken Cup points tally to 1,052, with four goals and a conversion. But the defeat completed a wretched weekend for Ireland's two leading sides, after the holders, Leinster, were beaten at home by London Irish on Friday night.
Northampton beat Munster 9-8 in the 2000 Heineken Cup final at Twickenham but the Irish province have won the tournament twice since then, in 2006 and 2008. In a pool which also contains the champions of Italy and France, Treviso and Perpignan, this match was always going to have a huge bearing on the ambitions of both teams.
Both had the opportunity to take an early grip – O'Gara missed a seventh-minute penalty, but Geraghty was spot on two minutes later. Munster's Springbok centre, Jean de Villiers, was then poleaxed by a double tackle.
Northampton were in charge, with Geraghty their heartbeat. He missed a shot at goal after 15 minutes but made amends inside 90 seconds. Then Ben Foden's high ball caused jitters and Geraghty's clever chip to the right was deflected back inside for Ashton to score the opening try.
Paul Warwick struck Munster's first points with a 50-yard drop-goal in the 21st minute, before Keith Earls raced across field, swept outside Ashton and managed an accurate kick ahead just as he was tackled into touch. With Saints caught out by the counter-attack, the flanker David Wallace had time to collect and score before Phil Dowson's arrival. O'Gara's conversion attempt was woeful but Munster were now giving as good as they got and they took the lead nine minutes before the break when O'Gara finally found his line and length with a penalty.
Sure enough, back came Saints. Geraghty kicked his second goal in the 34th minute and the fly-halves exchanged further kicks in a frenetic battle. Geraghty, however, saved the best for the final moments of the half. Awarded a penalty, he shaped as if he was going for a goal, but as Munster relaxed the fly-half tapped and went, squeezing over the line to spark bedlam. He converted his own try.
Munster seemed stunned as the second half began, shipping another try five minutes in. Geraghty, with a superb hip-swivel and a left-to-right inside pass, gave Ashton his second. The conversion would have buried a lesser side, but Munster struck back. Northampton were happy to settle for conceding three points to O'Gara rather than the seven their cynical penalty prevented.
There was anger in the air when the referee, Christophe Berdos, awarded Munster another shot at goal on the hour, because the French official got it hopelessly wrong. O'Gara did not, reducing the gap to eight points. With 13 minutes to go, the scrum-half Tomas O'Leary escaped the cover and accelerated over the line. O'Gara converted.
Geraghty kicked a 75th-minute goal to give his team some daylight but Munster came straight back. The finale, as so often this season, was heart-stopping. But North-ampton prevailed with a win that could yet echo all the way to the final in Paris next May.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey (C Mayor, 67), B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson (A Dickens, 70); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), S Bonorino (B Mujati, 58), C Lawes (I Fernandez Lobbe, 67), J Kruger, P Dowson, R Wilson, N Best.
Munster P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi (I Dowling, 61), P de Villiers, K Earls; R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, T Buckley (J Brugnaut, 67), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, A Quinlan (D Ryan, 65), D Leamy, D Wallace.
Referee: C Berdos (France).Reuse content