Messy Munster through to last eight thanks to O'Gara

Munster 12 Northampton 9
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The Independent Online

Once again, the poverty of the prevailing standards in the Guinness Premiership are demonstrated on a higher plateau.

Northampton may be one of the leading lights in the English league this season but they looked a modest, mediocre outfit at Thomond Park. When you play sides like Munster in the Heineken Cup, you receive the ultimate test of whether you are good enough to take your game to another level.

The answer, in Northampton's case in this crucial, defining game in Pool 1, was crystal clear. The Saints just weren't good enough.

They lacked the precision, the accuracy and the calm, ruthless killer touch in their game to beat a Munster side that was certainly there for the taking. Hanging on to a 9-6 lead with just 20 minutes left and under severe pressure, Munster then lost their captain Paul O'Connell to the sin bin.

If ever a side had the opportunity to silence Thomond Park's passionate support, it was Northampton in that situation. But what happened? They blew it, utterly, irrevocably. They lost control of a critical scrum against seven men, they panicked, they twice kicked the ball away aimlessly, once pathetically over the Munster goal line by Chris Ashton, and passed up numerous chances to score the converted try that could have pushed them decisively clear.

Fact was, they weren't good enough. Shane Geraghty richly vindicated the decision of the English selectors to drop him to their second tier squad, the Saxons. Geraghty may sparkle and dazzle in the Guinness Premiership but he was found badly wanting at this level. He doesn't have the composure, the cool authority or consistency of touch in his play to gain promotion to international level. He is hopelessly inconsistent and erratic – his kicking against Munster was at times shambolic.

Northampton tamely booted the final penalty of the match into touch to cling onto a losing bonus point. Such a limited ambition betrayed the fear that riddled their game for most of the evening. In the first half, they never played, too scared to attack Munster and put them under pressure.

Yet in truth, this was one of Munster's poorest performances for several seasons. Hammered frequently in the set scrums and unable to get their game going beyond Ronan O'Gara, they managed to hang on and frustrate Northampton around the fringes. But most of all, they owed their win to the English club's failings far more than their own achievements.

For the watching England selectors, it will have made grim viewing. All the hope of young players like Geraghty, Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Courtney Lawes was exposed as no more than that – hope. Lawes got a lesson on how to play at this higher level and he struggled to adapt. Alan Quinlan had far too much know-how for him.

Northampton may still make the quarter-finals but they will know this was a glorious opportunity missed. At the end of it all, as the Munster men celebrated yet another famous victory, Northampton and their loyal supporters were confronted with a stark realism. They just weren't good enough to do it when the chance came at this higher, altogether tougher level.

Munster: Pens O'Gara 4; Northampton: Pens Reihana, Geraghty, Myler.

Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez (M Horan, 67), D Fogarty (D Varley, 55), J Hayes (T Buckley, 70); D O'Callaghan (D Ryan, 55), P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace.

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler, 71), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray; IF Lobbe (C Day, 57), J Kruger; C Lawes (N Best, 71), P Dowson, R Wilson.

Referee: R Poite (France)