Munster reignite Champions Cup campaign with battling win at Northampton
No sign of the man in the red suit a week before the big day, but Christmas still came early for Munster at Franklin’s Gardens as a hard-fought win over Northampton reignited their Heineken Champions Cup campaign.
empers torn in a lively celebratory duel with four yellow cards, three of them for Munster.
This could be a new era for Munster but they showed much of the stubborn old-time spirit to escape from the East Midlands with a valuable win that ended the Saints’ interest in the tournament for next month’s second leg at Thomond Park could.
Up until the break Munster looked like they might have what it took to chase the bonus point, but with temperatures hovering around freezing and pouring rain, the second half was a duel which Graham Rowntree’s men ultimately won decisively.
Munster’s key men came to crucial moments when their team needed them most. Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne were immense, as were Jean Kleyn and Gavin Coombes, while Antoine Frisch was superb in defence.
It’s been a difficult couple of months for Coombes after being left out of the Ireland squad but the strong No8 provided a timely reminder of his quality here, with his two first-half tries putting Munster on the way. Remarkably, there were no points from either side in the second half.
Much of that was down to Munster’s courage and determination on a hugely encouraging day for Denis Leamy’s defense who were trying to keep a dangerous attacking team in their own backyard.
We got an early glimpse of what Jack Crowley has to offer down center when he came up as the first receiver, put in a half break and then threw a nice offload to keep the attack going.
Keith Earls returned to the starting XI after an injury lay-off and was looking well and the way he has worked alongside Frisch bodes well for Munster’s future.
The visitors settled well and asked many questions of the Saints defense but lacked clinical acuity until Coombes hit the mark.
The Skibbereen player’s first try did come from a Crowley knock-on deep at Northampton 22 but when the hosts conceded a free-kick from the resulting scrum Munster upped the pressure.
Niall Scannell took the tap-and-go, with Coombes seemingly getting over the line, only for the referee to rule a try hadn’t been scored. We came back for a Munster penalty, with Scannell using the same routine. This time it paid off as there was no doubt about Coombes’ finish.
Carbery’s conversion gave his side a 7-0 lead after 12 minutes but the Saints, who were dealt a blow before kick-off when their England international Courtney Lawes was out through injury, bounced back quickly thanks to a Finn Smith penalty.
Frisch came on with a crucial Jackal penalty to ease the pressure before Carbery extended Munster’s lead with a second penalty only for the out-half to return the three points after blocking George Furbank off the ball, allowing Smith to knocking the ball over kicking forward.
Munster struggled with the alley, but when they needed their set-piece to shoot, it didn’t fail them inside the Saints 22. O’Mahony won the ball and passed the rear to Beirne, who in turn slammed it for the Coombes who ran on, who could never be stopped from that range.
It was a brilliantly executed move on the training ground and, with Carbery adding the extras for good measure, a commanding 17-6 lead at the break was no more than Munster deserved.
Munster picked up where they left off after the restart but Calvin Nash needed to show a clean pair of heels to make an excellent cover attack from a Saints counterattack.
That brought the hosts to life as Jack O’Donoghue converted the ball from a crucial penalty before all hell broke loose. A 30-man brawl ensued and in the end O’Donoghue and Saints skipper Lewis Ludlam were shown yellow cards. Billy Proctor was blessed not to be punished for pouncing on Earls.
Craig Casey, just starting out, followed the pair into the bin after tackling James Ramm in the air. The Münster scrum half could not complain.
Playing with 13 men against Northampton’s 14, Munster held on until O’Mahony surfaced five yards from his own line with a striking lineout steal.
Beirne repeated the trick a few minutes later before Casey’s return briefly made it 15 to 15 again when Carbery was next shown yellow, this time for offside.
Munster defended for their lives and to their credit they somehow got all the answers. A scrum under the post looked like the ideal platform for Northampton to make the most of their numerical advantage, but Frisch showed another great defensive play to force the turnover.
Northampton continued to build the pressure but the determined defense refused to back down, Coombes being the last to pull off a crucial turnover to ensure it was Munster and not the Saints who marched on.
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; J Ramm, M Proctor (F Dingwall 66), R Hutchinson, T Freeman; F Smith (C Skosan 78), A Mitchell; A Waller (E Iyogun 58), S Matavesi (M Haywood 71), E Painter (A Petch 52); L Salakaia-Loto, D Ribbans; A Scott-Young (A Hinkley, 75), L Ludlum (Captain), J Augustus (A Moon 66).
Muenster: M Haley; C Nash, A Frisch, J Crowley (R Scannell 54), K Earls (S Daly 75); J Carbery, C Murray (C Casey 49); J Loughman (D Kilcoyne 49), N Scannell (D Barron 55), J Ryan (R Salanoa 75); J. Kleyn (J. Hodnett 70), T. Beirne; J O’Donoghue, P O’Mahony (Captain) (A Kendellen 75), G Coombes.
Referee: PB Nuchy (France).