Munster let the Saints come marching in and send them on the road in Last 16

Munster let game slip away despite leading 20-10 at one stage with Northampton down to 14 after red card

Munster 23 Northampton 26

This rare ‘European’ defeat at their citadel has condemned Munster to finishing fourth in Pool Three below Glasgow rather than third, meaning they will be away to one of the pool winners – namely Bordeaux-Begles, Northampton, Leinster or the winners of the Toulouse-Bath match on Sunday.

Presuming Saracens beat Lyon with a bonus point on Saturday night, then the likelihood is that Munster will be the 14th ranked side going into the knock-out stages, ahead of two other fourth-placed finishers in Leicester and Racing. They would therefore be away to the third-ranked side, which as things stand looks very much like it will be Northampton.

But were Saracens to beat Lyon without a bonus point, then Munster’s better points difference would lead to a ranking of 13th, and a Last 16 tie away to the fourth-ranked pool winner, which is destined to be Bordeaux-Begles.

In truth though, Munster could hardly have any complaints after a very patchy performance which failed to augment the momentum generated by last week’s fine win in Toulon.

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Furthermore, having led 20-10 at home against a team down to 14 men due to the 40th minute sending off, Munster were well set. But while they will have quibbles with the unconvincing French referee, they lost their way, particularly after the disconcerting sight of Peter O’Mahony gingerly walking off against opponents who were like a dog with a bone and stayed in the fight as outhalf Fin Smith kept the scoreboard ticking.

Munster’s set pieces increasingly struggled and while they played well in spurts, errors undermined any ability to maintain cohesion and coherence.

Although the rain relented before kick-off, the wind was sufficiently strong behind Munster’s back from the Mayorstone end for Jack Crowley’s kick-off to roll dead. Playing into the elements Northampton ran back all kicks, and helped by referee Tual Trainini missing a blatant obstruction by Rory Hutchinson on Tom Ahern, the Saints dominated possession with their running and recycling game in the opening quarter.

This had the dual benefit of running down time into the wind and becalming the 24,620 crowd as the home side and crowd alike struggled to get a foothold in the game.

Aside from a couple of huge touch-finders by Craig Casey, all they had to cheer were two thumping tackles by Ahern on Courtney Lawes and Gavin Coombes on Fraser Dingwall led to Munster scrums from spillages. The first was underlined by a Munster penalty, but the Saints pack gained revenge at the second, although Smith, having earlier missed one kick to touch which Casey returned with interest, this time ensured an attacking lineout on the 22.

Their South African number eight Juarno Augustus made the initial inroads when ploughing through Crowley and a couple of rucks later the ever-dangerous Alex Mitchell stepped past the retreating Jeremy Loughman, dummied inside Oli Jager and completed the frontrow set by beating Niall Scannell on the outside to take Calvin Nash’s tackle and score adroitly above his head while on his back.

Munster were briefly brought to life by Alex Nankivell’s carry, although it needed good work by Tadhg Beirne in the tackle to stop Mitchell in his tracks after a tap penalty, with Ollie Sleightholme going off his feet.

John Hodnett and Nash forced another important turnover when holding up Dingwall in the tackle and when Northampton ran back Crowley’s big touchfinder their tactics finally backfired when Dingwall was tackled by O’Mahony and Loughman won the turnover penalty.

Crowley kicked it and though wide with another from almost halfway the young outhalf began to truly influence proceedings by taking the ball square to the line and varying his options, as when linking with Nash on his inside with a disguised, delayed pass.

That break and ensuing attacking passage finally sparked a sustained Thomond roar, which intensified after George Furbank was binned for his tip tackle on Nash, before Beirne opted for the closer range penalty against Mitchell for offside from Casey’s quick tap.

After a sequence of close-in rumbles off Scannell’s tap penalty, Crowley pulled the trigger when arcing to the right and putting Antoine Frisch over with a delayed flat pass rather than Simon Zebo out the back.

The game then changed in tenor completely as the referee stopped the game for attention to Ahern as Northampton attacked nearing half-time. Replays on the big screen showed Northampton hooker Curtis Langdon had caught Ahern in the head with his right knee, seemingly inadvertently, before also catching him with his right knee, which looked unnecessary, dangerous and nasty.

It required repeated viewings for even the home crowd to realise all of this, and Langton was duly red-carded.

Munster had to attack off their ensuing lineout inside halfway, as it was against 13 men, and Frisch was launched over halfway up the middle and the home side built through the phases and used the full width of the pitch. Having hit Zebo on the left edge, they went to the right with a huge pass by Shane Daly to Nash, who might have scored himself before transferring to O’Mahony, who ploughed through Tommy Freeman for a fine finish in the corner and a 15-10 interval lead.

A visibly upset Zebo, his left knee heavily strapped during the interval following an earlier injury, was withdrawn before Smith’s penalty made it 15-10, to be replaced by Seán O’Brien rather than Joey Carbery.

But Munster soon struck again, building up a head of steam after Crowley shaped to kick a penalty to the corner but instead tapped and passed to Frisch. In the ensuing close-in rumbles, Coombes scored at his own third attempt in the attack, with Hodnett and Scannell latching on to drive him over the line.

Again though, Crowley missed the difficult conversion and although he landed a penalty after Casey stayed strong in the jackal, this was sandwiched by a penalty and a huge drop goal by the increasingly influential Smith.

What’s more, as the rain suddenly thundered down again, noisily clattering off the stadium’s roof, Courtney Lawes’s strength over the ball earned an attacking penalty to the corner, from which replacement backrower Sam Graham emerged like a mole and scampered over untouched for the try which put the Saints in front.

Smith also converted and although he was short with a long-range penalty shot to nothing, they saw out the endgame in Munster’s half and were entitled to celebrate a fine win, their first in five attempts here.

The home crowd made off quietly. A damp squib if ever there was one.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 19 mins: Mitchell try, Smith con, 0-7; 32: Crowley pen, 3-7; 38: Frisch try, Crowley con, 10-7; 40 (+2): O’Mahony try, 15-7; (half-time 15-7); 43: Smith pen, 15-10; 49: Coombes try, 20-10; 56: Smith pen, 20-13; 60: Smith drop goal, 20-16; 64: Crowley pen, 23-16; 67: Smith pen, 23-19; 71: Graham try, Smith con 23-26.

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Alex Nankivell, Shane Daly; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Oli Jager; Tom Ahern, Tadhg Beirne (capt); Peter O’Mahony, John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Brian Gleeson for Ahern (40 mins); Seán O’Brien for Zebo (43); John Ryan for Jager (50); Alex Kendellen for O’Mahony (66); Eoghan Clarke for Loughman, Josh Wycherley for Scannell (both 68); Joey Carbery for Nankevill (76). Not used: Paddy Patterson.

NORTHAMPTON: George Furbank (capt); Tommy Freeman, Fraser Dingwall, Rory Hutchinson, Ollie Sleightholme; Fin Smith, Alex Mitchell; Alex Waller, Curtis Langdon, Trevor Davison; Temo Mayanavanua, Alex Coles; Courtney Lawes, Tom Pearson, Juarno Augustus.

Replacements: Robbie Smith for Sleightholme (46 mins); Sam Graham for Augustus (50); Elliot Millar Mills for Davison (53); Emmanuel Iyogun for Waller, Alex Moon for Mayanavanua (both 58); Burger Odendaal for Hutchinson (65). Not used: Tom James, Charlie Savala.

Yellow card: Furbank (38-48 mins).

Red card: Langdon (40 mins).

Referee: Tual Trainini (Fra).

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times