Munster 23 Northampton Saints 26
At half-time, this was a match that Northampton Saints had no right to win. This was Thomond Park, a venue which is seldom conquered, with Saints trailing by eight having just been reduced to 14 men after the sending off of Curtis Langdon. Munster had to win to give themselves a shot of a home last-16 tie in the Champions Cup, a feat Northampton had already achieved before their arrival in Limerick.
What followed was one of the Saints’ most astonishing 40-minute displays – in a season which has been full of them – to earn one of their greatest European victories. It does not matter that it was a virtual dead rubber; Northampton came to a packed Thomond Park, in the horizontal rain of the fledgling Storm Isha, and proved that they had the artisan alongside the artistry, twice overturning 10-point deficits in the second half. Munster secured the losing bonus point which ensured last-16 progression – away from their Thomond Park fortress – but this night belonged to Northampton.
The Saints deservedly sit atop the Premiership table and, after this famous night in Limerick, why should they not be considered among the front-runners in this competition, too? Seven of the starting XV were this week named in England’s Six Nations squad and Steve Borthwick will have been overjoyed by their displays, especially that of fly-half Fin Smith, whose game management in the second half was immaculate, hitting a spectacular 45-metre drop-goal allied to magical tactical and place kicking (watch video below).
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In the first half, Smith was integral to all of Saints’ stylish attack, too. With all the talk of his namesake, Marcus, when Fin Smith struts like this with such variety, the Saint has as good a chance as any to start at fly-half for England in Rome.
“A 30-minute masterclass from Fin,” said George Furbank, Northampton’s captain. “But we never felt like we were out of it. We spoke about not shutting up shop completely.”
“The victory is right up there in the journey,” said Phil Dowson, Northampton director of rugby. “We spoke about how few teams have won here and what a challenge it was. To come to one of the best places to play in Europe, to go down to 14 men and find a way to win speaks volumes of the group.”
Furbank himself continued to show the kind of regal form that will be required if he is to oust incumbent Freddie Steward from England’s full-back jersey; Ollie Sleightholme (not included in Borthwick’s squad, but on the radar) and Tommy Freeman outside him are breathtaking at times and Fraser Dingwall really does have the nose for a pass. Up front, Alex Coles and Tom Pearson were tremendously busy and, in more sobering news for Borthwick, Courtney Lawes had a second half from the Gods alongside cameo star Sam Graham who bagged the winning score.
Another Anglo-Irish clash and another red card for the Premiership team. Where Bristol’s Josh Caulfield was sent off on Friday night for accidental boot contact to the face of Connacht’s Finlay Bealham, on the stroke of half-time Northampton hooker Curtis Langdon suffered the same fate for a knee to the head of Munster lock Tom Ahern (watch video below).
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Caulfield’s sentence, given the mitigation, was incredibly harsh in Galway but it looked as if Langdon might have been more guilty in Limerick. It would be impossible to ascertain whether the hooker’s action was deliberate but it was certainly more reckless than Caulfield’s. Ahern had to be driven off the field in a medical vehicle but, thankfully, the stretcher was not required.
It was Northampton’s sole England regular who earned their breakthrough. Alex Mitchell dummied to leave Rory Scannell and then Calvin Nash for dead before scampering over to score. It was no more than Northampton deserved after a punchy opening.
Despite their endeavour in dire conditions, Northampton’s early lead would not last. Jack Crowley kicked three points before the fly-half sent Antoine Frisch strolling over.
With Furbank in the bin for a tip-tackle, Langdon departed to leave Northampton with 13 but Munster would cross again before the half was out. Shane Daly flung a beauty of a pass out to Nash who fed Peter O’Mahony, with the blindside riding Freeman’s challenge to score.
Smith added two more penalties after half-time before that sensational drop-goal, and Munster became anxious. Three more points from the boot of Crowley settled some nerves, but Smith reduced the deficit again after a meaty Saints scrum.
With the clock ticking, Graham’s maul try gave 14-player Northampton a remarkable late lead – and a remarkable victory to boot.
Scores: 0-5 Mitchell try, 0-7 Smith con, 3-7 Crowley pen, 8-7 Frisch try, 10-7 Crowley con, 15-7 O’Mahony try, 15-10 Smith pen, 20-10 Coombes try, 20-13 Smith pen, 20-16 Smith drop goal, 23-16 Crowley pen, 23-19 Smith pen, 23-24 Graham try, 23-26 Smith con.
Munster: S Zebo; C Nash, A Frisch, A Nankivell, S Daly; J Crowley, C Casey; J Loughman, N Scannell, O Jager, T Ahern, T Beirne (c), P O’Mahony, J Hodnett, G Coombes.
Replacements: E Clarke, J Wycherley, J Ryan, B Gleeson, A Kendellen, C Murray, J Carbery, S O’Brien.
Northampton: G Furbank (c); T Freeman, F Dingwall, R Hutchinson, O Sleightholme; F Smith, A Mitchell; A Waller, C Langdon, T Davison, T Mayanavanua, A Coles, C Lawes, T Pearson, J Augustus.
Replacements: R Smith, E Iyogun, E Millar-Mills, A Moon, S Graham, T James, B Odendaal, C Savala.
Yellow card: Furbank 37.
Red card: Langdon 39.
Referee: T Trainini.