Single-point verdicts in the weekend's first two Heineken Cup quarter-finals had gone before it, but this meeting of former winners finished with a definitive gap in the scores, in class, in nous and in bragging rights. Northampton gave it a good lash, as they say in these parts, but were beaten by a side with more big-game experience in every area, epitomised by Doug Howlett's two tries and Ronan O'Gara's brilliant second-half kicking for position.
The final whistle came a few seconds after O'Gara, the tournament's all-time top scorer by 300-plus points, was shoved over by Northampton's South African lock, Juandre Kruger. The act was more childish than violent but the Saints had lost their rag; Munster don't do haloes and it is up to Northampton to learn the lesson. Munster go on to the semi-final in three weekends' time, against Biarritz in France or, possibly, Spain.
Northampton were the last Guinness Premiership team in the competition, and their director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, said: "It's quite sad for the English game but I suppose that's where we are. There are still some good teams in the Premiership." He and his side probably suspected there would be a difference between lying second in the domestic league and holding the European Challenge and Anglo-Welsh Cups, and bringing off a victory at this Limerick stronghold. If so, they were spot on, and never mind the narrow defeat they had here in the pool in January.
Thomond Park is a redeveloped monument to Munster's contribution to the Heineken Cup, and vice versa. Someone borrowed from Jaws and decided: "You're gonna need a bigger bearpit." Yesterday one of their prime grizzlies, the captain Paul O'Connell, was out injured yet the home side had only one starting forward under 30 – and he was the 29-year-old No 8 James Coughlan. Northampton, with their four young England players, led at half-time having scored a try just before it, but that was as good as it got.
"With the loss of someone like Paul, the rest of the team needed to step up to the mark," said Tony McGahan, the Munster coach. They did that all right, in an opening five minutes when the 2006 and 2008 champions terrorised their conquerors from the 2000 final with the high ball and went 10-0 up with a penalty by O'Gara and a try by the Australian full-back Paul Warwick. A Munster line-out was mauled until Keith Earls was released on the left. The young Lion fed Warwick, who dummied an outside pass and ghosted past James Downey.
Northampton recovered and a fluffed Munster line-out allowed Roger Wilson to snaffle and Soane Tonga'uiha to charge. A ruck penalty under the posts gave the fly-half Steve Myler three points. Then Munster wheeled a scrum illegally and Myler potted that kick too.
The crowd had been whipped up with "Stand Up and Fight" and they didn't mind much if the words were made flesh. Step forward Alan Quinlan, who is better at wind-ups than any Swiss watchmaker. He got into a fight with Bruce Reihana over the latter's scrum-cap and there were oodles of petty scraps, none of which did Northampton any good – not that they could let Munster do what they wanted. A conundrum older than any Irish forward.
A scrum and a series of rucks allowed O'Gara to pass long for Howlett to pirouette past Reihana and Phil Dowson for a 13-6 lead. Quinlan conceded a penalty plus 10 metres for back-chat and Myler made it 13-9. When Dowson led some insistent drives and Myler, Reihana and Ben Foden sent in Jon Clarke for a converted try, Munster needed to regroup.
With the second-half wind behind them, they blew Northampton's house down. Earls shifted to the wing to allow Lifeimi Mafi into midfield but it was the other centre, Jean de Villiers, who sliced Northampton open for Munster's third try, 12 minutes in, with O'Gara converting. O'Gara and Myler then exchanged penalties for Munster to lead 23-19.
The Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, took a belated stand over Munster's continual provocation, penalising John Hayes for holding. Ashton went through on a lovely inside ball by Shane Geraghty, who had come on for Myler shortly before O'Gara's 68th-minute penalty made it 26-19. Ashton passed too early to Kruger and Saints were held out at the corner.
Munster wrapped it all up with another converted try which came from another scrum. Tomas O'Leary, as with De Villiers' score, was pivotal, taking David Wallace's pass and feeding the arch-finisher, Howlett.
Munster P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling (L Mafi, 42); R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes (T Buckley, 69); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; A Quinlan, J Coughlan (H Williams, 62), D Wallace.
Northampton B Foden, C Ashton, J Clarke (J Ansbro, 72), J Downey, B Reihana, S Myler (S Geraghty, 65), L Dickson, S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray (B Mujati, 65), C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson (M Easter, 72), N Best, R Wilson.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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