Two-time European champions Munster produced a trademark gritty performance, inspired by Irish flyhalf Ronan O’Gara on his 100th European Cup appearance, to edge Welsh side Scarlets 17-14 on Saturday.
Munster’s three wins from their three pool matches have seen them prevail by the barest of margins, O’Gara landing two last-second drop goals to get them past Northampton and Castres and they again had to show their character against their main pool rivals.
The Scarlets got off to a flying start as Aaron Shingler raced through to touch down, but Rhys Priestland missed the conversion and was to have a woeful afternoon with his place-kicking landing just two of his five kicks at goal.
The hosts dominated for most of the first-half, but then O’Gara got into his stride and orchestrated a comeback so much so that they led 11-8 at the break, thanks to two penalties from him and a well-worked try by Niall Ronan.
Scarlets drew level early in the second half, but two O’Gara penalties gave them a six-point lead before veteran Wales flyhalf Stephen Jones, who was sent on at the hour mark after Priestland missed another kick, scored a penalty to leave them just three points behind.
However, Munster drew on all their experience and managed to hold on for a vital win and will fancy their chances at doing the double when they host the Welsh side next weekend.
“It was a really hard-fought win. We started really poorly and when you start like that against a team like the Scarlets, with the caliber of player they have, you get punished and that’s what happened,” Munster captain Paul O’Connell said. “It’s a hell of a win for us and we are absolutely thrilled with it, but we are fully aware it’s only halftime.”
Earlier, former European Cup champions Northampton’s chances of reaching the knockout stages were left hanging by a thread as they fell to a surprise 41-22 defeat by French side Castres.
The Saints — beaten finalists in last season’s competition — didn’t do themselves any favors in being reduced to 14 men twice in the match, as Castres wing Romain Martial scored two tries — his first for the club since he joined from Narbonne two years ago.
Romain Teulet scored 21 of their other points with his boot to help his club to their first victory in any competition since Oct. 22.
Saints coach Jim Mallinder was not happy with the fact his side had played a total of 20 minutes of the match with just 14 men after flyhalf Steve Myler and England flanker Tom Wood were sin-binned in separate incidents.
“We wanted to play rugby and move a big Castres side around and I thought we did that very well,” Mallinder said. “But this was always going to be a big challenge and it is always going to be hard when you have to defend for 20 minutes with 14 men.”
There was something of a surprise in another of the early matches as Italian side Treviso beat ailing two-time European Cup finalists Biarritz 30-26 in Pool 5, set up mainly on an explosive first-half, which saw them score three tries and lead 24-12 at the break.
English champions Saracens took charge of the pool, however, with a 31-26 victory over Ospreys at Wembley.
Tries from Rhys Gill, Ernst Joubert and Chris Wyles, along with 16 points from Owen Farrell’s boot were enough to outdo a similar points-kicking haul from Dan Biggar, but only two Ashley Beck tries for the Welsh region.