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Rusty Munster let Northampton slip away

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Rusty Munster let Northampton slip away

 

HEINEKEN CUP Northampton 31 Munster 27: FACED BY a buoyant home side who were 14 points to the good and had 35 minutes to secure a fourth try and bonus point, a rusty Munster were in danger of pitching themselves into miracle territory after one game.

Few teams in Europe, perhaps none, would have got within an ass’s roar of the potentially crucial bonus point they subsequently secured, and yet they’ll rue this as one that got away.

It’s impossible to measure exactly, but for sure Munster’s lack of game time, collectively and individually, contributed to this defeat – especially compared to Northampton’s more match-honed slickness and precision.

The spirit and flesh were always willing, there were some wonderful moments or passages, but, as you half expected, handling errors, wrong options and defensive mishaps occasionally undermined their best efforts. The error rate was simply too high.

Hence, having climbed one significant slope, they gave themselves another higher one to scale, and then, akin to Leinster the night before, they were left to rue a French referee’s performance.

Christophe Berdos is the best French referee around by a distance which, admittedly, isn’t saying much. He deserves much credit for presiding over the game of the season so far – which, again, isn’t saying much. Having initially gone with the prevailing flow in penalising the attacking team at the breakdown for holding on, he began penalising the defensive side too.

However, having issued a collective warning to Northampton via captain Dylan Hartley, he didn’t even follow that up with a further caution when they twice more illegally pilfered ball on the floor under their own posts. Then, when Munster tapped a penalty in over time, two and perhaps three Saints slid around the wrong side snail-like to kill the ball. Expediency ruled, and Monsieur Berdos signalled game over.

A win would have been all the more remarkable given how impressively Northampton played and how accurately they carried out their game plan. Crisply directing it all was Shane Geraghty, who cockily strutted his stuff and was allowed to grow in confidence almost untouched all day.

Despite missing three kicks, two of them eminently within range, he accumulated 21 points, including a try when catching Munster off guard when eschewing a kick at goal and tapping to himself. He was also the orchestrator-in-chief of the home side’s other two tries. He is confident enough with his pace and footwork to play flat, which made his late chip for the first Chris Ashton try very hard to defend, but with Lifeimi Mafi, as is his wont, shooting up and with Marcus Horan failing to plug the ensuing gap, Geraghty cut through and put Ashton over.

Geraghty’s hanging restarts and up-and-unders also caused havoc, with the hugely-talented 20-year-old, English lock-in-waiting Courtney Lawes leading the charge for the former, while an out of sorts Tomás O’Leary failed to gather three high kicks.

Munster’s scrum also struggled, even more so when Julien Brugnaut came in. They are also still getting used to Jean de Villiers, who looked almost pedestrian, while Mafi, perhaps troubled by injury, is not at his best.

Having turned an 8-0 deficit into a 11-8 and then a 14-11 lead four minutes from the break, having bucked trends by twice daring to counter-attack in quick succession for David Wallace to score off Keith Earls’ run and kick, it looked as if the two-time winners had rolled with the punches in vintage style to turn the game around and deflate an initially buoyant home team.

What happened next was so unlike them and left them with a bigger, second mountain to climb. “Championship minutes” as Matt Williams calls them, and in the ensuing nine minutes either side of half-time Munster conceded 17 points. Digging deep, the Munster pack rediscovered their maul and it’s a measure of O’Leary’s mental strength that he recovered so manfully to play a leading role in Munster’s comeback with his physicality around the fringes in defence and attack, and a superbly taken try. Their scrum undid the comeback before they were left frustrated at the end as Berdos sought the sanctuary of the dressingroom with indecent haste. Still, they’ll only get better.

Scoring sequence: 10 minsGeraghty pen 3-0; 18 minsAshton try 8-0; 21 minsWarwick drop goal 8-3; 25 minsWallace try 8-8; 32 minsO’Gara pen 8-11; 35 minsGeraghty pen 11-11; 36 minsO’Gara pen 11-14; 38 minsGeraghty pen 14-14; 40 (+1 min)Geraghty try and conversion 21-14 (half-time 21-14); 45 minsAshton try, Geraghty con 28-14; 49 minsO’Gara pen 28-17; 61 minsO’Gara pen 28-20; 68 minsO’Leary try, O’Gara con 28-27; 74 minsGeraghty pen 31-27.

NORTHAMPTON: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson; S Tonga’uiha, D Hartley (capt), S Bonorino, C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson, N Best, R Wilson. Replacements: B Mujati for Bonorino (58 mins), I Fernandez Lobbe for Lawes, C Mayor for Downey (both 67 mins), A Dickens for Dickson (70 mins). Not used: B Sharman, R Dreyer, M Easter, S Myler.

MUNSTER: P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, J de Villiers, K Earls; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, T Buckley; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell capt; A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy. Replacements: D Ryan for Quinlan (65 mins), J Brugnaut for Buckley (67 mins), I Dowling for Mafi (70 mins). Not used: D Fogarty, Darragh Hurley, M O’Driscoll, N Ronan, P Stringer.

Referee: Christophe Berdos(France)

Pool One Results and fixtures

Up next: Round Two – Oct 16th: Perpignan v Northampton Saints, Stade Aimé Giral, 8pm. Saturday, Oct 17th: Munster v Benetton Treviso, Thomond Park, 1.35pm.

Munster’s fixture list: Round Three – Friday, Dec 11th: Munster v Perpignan, Thomond Park, 8pm. Round Four – Sunday, Dec 20th: Perpignan v Munster, Stade Aimé Giral, 3pm. Round Five – January 15th: Benetton Treviso v Munster, Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Round Six – January 22nd: Munster v Northampton Saints, Thomond Park.

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