Munster crush Northampton
January 21, 2012
Munster's Simon Zebo races away to score one of his three tries against the Saints
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Munster powered their way to the No.1 seeding in this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a thumping 51-36 victory over Northampton at Stadium:MK on Saturday night.
A hat-trick for winger Simon Zebo was the highlight of a sensational second-half display from the two-time champions, who remain unbeaten in this year's competition following their sixth straight victory. Northampton, looking to secure a European lifeline in the Amlin Challenge Cup, led early on in the contest - with their formidable pack totally dominating their rivals and earning two penalty tries - but a classy Munster rolled with the punches. Prop BJ Botha and winger Johne Murphy kept the perennial title challengers in touch before Zebo's Man of the Match-worthy offering.
Saints fly-half Ryan Lamb ended the game with a 19-point haul but his contribution was trumped by that of veteran Ronan O'Gara, who pulled the strings as Munster delivered their latest Heineken Cup masterclass.
Northampton, who were attempting to avenge their dramatic last-gasp defeat to Munster at Thomond Park earlier this season, were handed the first scoring opportunity in a frenetic opening only for Lamb to hit the post with his first penalty attempt. He had more luck from the opposite side though, after further pressure drew the error from Munster.
The Northampton scrum then took centre stage to earn another penalty and Lamb made no mistake from straight in front to double his side's lead. A penalty against England new boy Calum Clark, who got isolated at the breakdown following the re-start, then enabled O'Gara to get his side on the board.
A crunching tackle from Saints lock Samu Manoa on Munster centre Lifeimi Mafi soon had the home crowd on their feet and forced a crucial turnover. Another superb effort from the home side at the resulting scrum had Munster heading backwards at a rate of knots before referee Romain Poite put an end to their pain by awarding a penalty try. Lamb hammered home the Saints' dominance with the simple extras before Munster finally found some direction and continuity with No.8 James Coughlan taking a leading role to earn an offside penalty, which O'Gara duly slotted.
There was little let up in the physicality on show and Munster's renewed muscle - typified by a big hit from flanker Donnacha Ryan on Northampton winger Jamie Elliot - led to another offside penalty that O'Gara landed to reduce the arrears to four points. That score was swiftly cancelled out, with Lamb deciding to slot a drop goal with options limited, but Munster were to offer a more significant reply of their own. Northampton failed to secure the re-start, a troublesome area of the game for them all evening, and Munster capitalised by driving forward before Botha pounced on a slip up by Manoa to force his way over from short range. O'Gara's conversion brought his side back onto level terms.
Clearly fired up by the reversal in their fortunes, there would be more joy for Munster before the break with O'Gara on target once again after Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson was penalised for not releasing the ball. But the scrum remained the Saints' trump card and another timely destruction of the Munster set-piece ensured the sides headed to the tunnel locked at 19-19.
Munster began the second-half with plenty of intent as the re-start proved fruitful once again. Saints' shortcomings were painfully exposed with quick ball finding fullback Denis Hurley and then Murphy, who stepped inside a last-ditch tackle from winger Vasily Artemyev before stretching for the score. O'Gara's conversion extended their advantage but they were hungry for more.
O'Gara fed centre Keith Earls, who in turn found the onrushing Hurley. His sublime offload was gleefully collected by Zebo on his way notching Munster's third try. Forced to chase the game to preserve their own euro interests, Northampton kicked their next penalty to the corner and the gamble looked to have paid off as prop Soane Tonga'uiha closed in on the line, only for the combined efforts of the Munster defence to dislodge the ball from his grasp while in the act of scoring.
Northampton regrouped in time to force a turnover at the scrum and Munster had little answer, with a second penalty try awarded after captain Paul O'Connell and his pack failed to heed a warning from Poite. Tempers boiled over in the wake of the decision and both Dickson and his Munster counterpart Conor Murray were sent to the sin-bin after Lamb had converted the score.
A relative calm had been restored by the time O'Gara slotted his fifth penalty just past the hour mark and his sixth a few minutes later was merely the precursor to the killer blow. Zebo picked off a desperate pass on half way before racing away to grab his second score, which ensured the bonus point that would catapult his side into the No.1 seeding.
But there would be no end to Saints' woe, with Zebo completing his hat-trick after replacement Ian Keatley had created the opening with a diagonal run inside the Northampton 22. Keatley's conversion took Munster past the 50-point mark but Saints would have the final word with replacement Scott Armstrong crossing for a consolation score that was converted by Stephen Myler.
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