Munster booked a Heineken Cup quarter-final with a 12-9 victory over Northampton Saints in a tense Pool 1 clash at Thomond Park
Four penalties from the boot of Munster fly-half Ronan O'Gara gave the perennial title challengers a narrow victory with fullback Bruce Reihana, fly-half Shane Geraghty and his replacement Stephen Myler slotting kicks for Northampton.
The hosts were far from their rampaging best and had to endure the sin-binning of captain Paul O'Connell but in the end had too much for their Premiership rivals who were guilty of some poor place-kicking and decision making. Munster's reward is a home tie in the last eight as their place amongst the top four seeds is assured while Northampton must wait to see what happens in games between the Ospreys and Leicester and London Irish against reigning European champions Leinster before learning whether they have done enough to join Munster as one of the two best runners-up. But Saints' losing bonus point has ended the quarter-final ambitions of teams in other groups like Sale Sharks, Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets.
Scotland prop Euan Murray and England lock Courtney Lawes, named at blindside flanker, were the only changes for Northampton following their 34-0 drubbing of French champions Perpignan last weekend. Munster boss Tony McGahan, meanwhile, had hoped to retain the side which accounted for Treviso in bonus point fashion six days ago, but an enforced late change meant wing Ian Dowling starting instead of Denis Hurley.
The tension was evident from the opening whistle with both sides showing signs of nerves and opting for safety rather than an expansive approach. As a result the opening period was dominated by the boot with what little rugby there was being provided by the hosts. Northampton fullback Ben Foden rose to an early test and claimed a high ball well but the support was slow in coming and the resulting penalty allowed O'Gara to give his side an early lead.
Munster continued to dictate proceedings with fullback Paul Warwick probing with some success and flanker Alan Quinlan proving a thorn in Northampton's side throughout on his way to the man of the match honour. Northampton were not allowed to play and had to wait until the quarter hour for their first significant passage of attacking play. But it was all too brief and they were soon under the cosh again with some good defensive work frustrating the Munster faithful.
An attempt at a long range drop goal from Geraghty that fell short and wide summed up Northampton's creative woes but a lack of a clinical edge meant Munster were unable to put any daylight between themselves and their rivals. A rare success at scrum time then gave O'Gara the chance to extend his side's lead but his effort did not have the legs to reach its target.
Northampton were causing problems for the Munster pack at scrum time and drew a penalty just past the half hour mark with kicking duties falling to Reihana who landed a difficult kick to level the scores. But back came Munster as the half drew to a close with O'Gara proving elusive deep in Northampton territory and his ingenuity drew another penalty as Saints attempted to diffuse the threat. O'Gara slotted the relatively easy chance to restore Munster's narrow advantage before the break.
Northampton began the second half well with Lawes and lock Juandre Kruger turning up the heat on O'Gara and the pressure told with Quinlan conceding a penalty that Reihana pulled horribly wide of the posts - that saw the famous Thomond Park hush that greets kickers broken by jeers.
But that setback failed to deter the visitors who were clearly growing in belief that they could cause an upset and join Leicester as the only sides to have handed Munster a home defeat in Europe. Another big scrum from the Northampton pack gifted Geraghty the chance to bring the sides level but he cold only produce another shocker of a kick as the costly misses began to add up.
To their credit, Northampton did not dwell on their latest failure and another good scrum laid the foundation for a multi-phase attack with Geraghty offering an all-too-brief glimpse of what he can do when he has an attacking mindset. It would prove to be the start of a pivotal passage of play in the match. Munster were penalised at the breakdown for coming in from the side and referee Romain Poite lectured O'Connell while Geraghty slotted the easy three to bring his side level.
That score appeared to galvanise Northampton but as they stepped up their game their indiscipline let them down to allow O'Gara to edge the Munstermen ahead once more - this time from distance. But the Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary was charged down from the re-start as he looked to get the ball away with Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley scooping up the loose ball superbly before being held up on the line. Saints had no hesitation in going for the scrum and a pick and drive from No.8 Roger Wilson was snuffed out by Munster only for Poite to penalise O'Connell and send him to the sin-bin.
Sensing a try was theirs for the taking, Northampton opted for another scrum and they drew another penalty - this time for wheeling the set-piece. The sides packed down again but Munster took the ball against the head with the crowd erupting as if they had scored. Northampton rallied again but were guilty of kicking the ball away as they ran out of ideas in the final third. And O'Connell's return to the fray coincided with O'Gara stretching Munster's lead with his fourth penalty.
Geraghty's re-start sailed straight into touch to hasten the introduction of Myler and his first contribution was a penalty that reduced the arrears to three points and cemented their grip on at least a bonus point. But Munster closed the game out to ensure the win that sees them progress to the knock-out stages for the 12th successive year.