Two-time European Cup champions Munster drew on all their experience on Sunday to defeat Welsh side Ospreys 22-16 and stay top of Pool 3.
The Irish province scored three tries — courtesy of former All Black Doug Howlett, veteran David Wallace and Johne Murphy — to the Ospreys’ one — by Irish winger Tommy Bowe — although they played the last 10 minutes with just 14 men after lock Paul O’Connell was given a straight red card only 10 minutes after coming on.
Ospreys — one of the best sides never yet to contest a final — had more than held their own, leading until the final seconds of the first half when Ronan O’Gara landed his first kick in four attempts to make it 8-6.
Munster had scored the only try of the half when Tomas O’Leary’s superb kick into the Ospreys’ 22 saw Howlett run onto it and touch down.
It was the Ospreys, though, who drew first blood in the second period when Bowe intercepted Sam Tuitupou’s pass deep inside his 22 and raced away showing a clean pair of heels to record his 19th try in 39 European Cup appearances.
However, the Irish side gained the upper hand near the hour mark when Ryan Jones was yellow-carded and the hosts took full advantage.
First Wallace — as fresh as ever even at 34 — crossed the line, for his 15th try in 82 European Cup games, aided by fellow veterans Alan Quinlan and Mick O’Driscoll and O’Gara converted to give them a 15-13 lead.
This was quickly followed by Murphy taking O’Leary’s pass — though it looked suspiciously forward — and running the ball in which was also superbly converted by O’Gara from way out on the left.
It was at this point that to a tremendous roar O’Connell entered the fray for only his second appearance after nine months out through injury.
However, their joy and his relief at seeing action again was soured when the former British and Irish Lions skipper willfully lashed out at Jonathan Thomas and pole-axed him.
“I was hoping I was colors blind!” joked Munster coach Tony McGahan about the card. “But unfortunately my eyesight is good enough as I am still young.”
His Ospreys counterpart Jonathan Humphreys sympathized with O’Connell.
“He is not a dirty player. We have a lot of admiration for him. He’s a very iconic figure here and risks missing a large chunk of the rest of the season because of this,” Humphreys said.
The other early match saw another defeat for a Welsh side as the Newport Gwent Dragons went down 23-16 at home to former champions London Wasps.
The last two games of the weekend saw French duo, domestic champions ASM Clermont Auvergne and Toulon beat last year’s European champions Leinster and London Irish respectively.
Clermont reinforced their challenge to finishing top of Pool 2 by beating Leinster — who were without Irish national skipper Brian O’Driscoll and lost Irish No. 8 Jamie Heaslip in the second-half to injury — 20-13 with fullback Anthony Floch scoring the decisive try.
Leinster’s consolation was to take a defensive bonus point and stay top of the pool by a point from Clermont.
Toulon’s 19-13 win in England saw them also get right back in contention in Pool 3, trailing Munster by two points, but London Irish need a miracle to get the one automatic place for the knockout stages as they slumped to their sixth successive defeat in all competitions.
Toulon’s South African backrow star Joe van Niekerk said that the win was key for the team.