Munster booked yet another Heineken Cup semi-final date with an impressive 33-19 victory over Northampton in their last eight clash at Thomond Park.
Two tries from Kiwi winger Doug Howlett and further scores from fullback Paul Warwick and centre Jean de Villiers saw the Irish province account for their Premiership rivals and progress to the final four for the ninth time where they will face French side Biarritz - conquerors of Ospreys earlier in the day. The boot of fly-half Stephen Myler and a try from centre Jon Clarke had given Northampton a narrow lead at the break but they were unable to withstand a second-half surge from the hosts, with halfback duo Ronan O'Gara and man of the match Tomas O'Leary orchestrating Munster's march into the semi-finals.
Munster, who were stripped of talismanic skipper Paul O'Connell ahead of the game when he failed a fitness test, stole an early advantage straight from the kick off with a high hanging kick from O'Gara resulting in an off side penalty against the Saints that the experienced fly-half slotted to open the scores.
There was more trouble for the visitors soon after when a clearance kick from Myler was charged down but Northampton eventually scrambled the ball away. However, there was no let up from the hosts, who rumbled back into the 22 with a strong drive and the ball was then worked through the hands to Warwick, who strolled over for the first try of the game. O'Gara, who took on the captaincy in O'Connell's absence, saw his conversion attempt sail wide of the posts.
Northampton rallied strongly and when Alan Quinlan failed to roll away in the shadow of his own posts, Myler stepped up to reduced the arrears with his first penalty. More indiscipline from the hosts handed Northampton excellent field position and a cross kick from Myler to Ashton showed the Premiership side's willingness to play, although the execution was poor.
A big scrum from the Saints' pack drew another penalty from their Munster counterparts on the quarter hour and Myler made not mistake from 40m to bring his side to within two points. Back came Munster with quick ball causing problems for Northampton and although Saints scrambled the ball away, they were soon under the cosh again and the pressure finally told with an explosive run from O'Gara creating the chance for Howlett, who forced his way over in the corner. The angle once again got the better of O'Gara when it came to the conversion.
Both sides showed a willingness to run the ball and it was the pace of Ashton that drew another penalty from Quinlan and Munster were marched back a further ten metres when the veteran flanker chose to argue the point. Myler stepped up to keep his team's hopes alive with his third penalty.
O'Gara opted to keep Northampton guessing with a drop goal attempt as the half drew to a close but his effort went wide and some quick thinking from the drop out had Munster scrambling back in defence - but the sweeping move from Saints was let down by a forward pass on half way. Northampton ended the half on the front foot, with some slick passing creating the opening for Clarke, who coasted over for an easy score with the Munster defence nowhere. Myler completed an excellent first half with the conversion that saw Northampton take a 16-13 lead into the break.
Northampton picked up where they left off at the start of the second half by peppering the Munster defence but a crushing tackle from replacement Lifeimi Mafi on Bruce Reihana stopped the Saints in their tracks, although hooker Jerry Flannery could only knock on as the home side looked to capitalise.
Munster were forced to weather another barrage from Northampton before the boot of O'Gara released the pressure with a great touch-finder inside the visitors' 22. The Saints claimed the ball at the lineout but Munster won the scrum feed and De Villiers cut a great line to breach the defence for a try that gave the home side the lead once more, with O'Gara's conversion cementing that advantage. But Munster's indiscipline let them down again almost immediately and Myler made them pay with another excellent kick to make it a one-point game.
The tit-for-tat exchange continued with Northampton this time succumbing to the pressure allowing O'Gara to restore a four-point lead. A clearance kick from Northampton scrum-half Lee Dixon was then charged down by Marcus Horan and the Saints' No.9 was then penalised for pulling him back even though replays suggested the prop was offside. O'Gara stepped up with the hope of giving his side a bit more breathing space but he pulled his kick wide.
O'Gara continued to exert more and more influence on the game with his kicking from hand dictating proceedings while Northampton opted for a change of personnel at fly-half, with Shane Geraghty stepping into Myler's boots. But he was unable to prevent O'Gara stretching Munster's lead when Clarke was caught on the wrong side of a ruck.
Facing a real test of their credentials, Northampton dug deep with Geraghty and Ashton carving an opening for lock Juandre Kruger, who darted for the corner before laying the ball back for prop Soane Tonga'uiha with Munster doing just enough to scramble the ball away. Munster repelled another Northampton attack soon after, with David Wallace stripping the ball of Neil Best and Warwick's clearance drew a massive roar from the Thomond Park faithful.
Munster took heart from that small victory and looked to close the game out with a drop goal from Warwick but his effort was charged down. However, it resulted in a five-metre scrum for the hosts and O'Leary drew two defenders before feeding Howlett for his second score. O'Gara put the icing on the cake with an excellent conversion to book his side a semi-final showdown with Biarritz.