Northampton Saints have it all to do if they are to progress into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup, after a stubborn Munster edged them out at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.
Two first-half Fin Smith penalties were all the men in Black, Green and Gold could manage against the Irish province’s resilient defence, with Gavin Coombes crossing for a double to open up a 17-6 lead at the interval.
While Saints turned up the pressure in the second half, enjoying by far the lion’s share of possession and territory, they could not breach the try line as Munster gritted their teeth in spite of several yellow cards, and the score stayed the same until the final whistle.
Saints, looking to bounce back from an opening-day defeat to Stade Rochelais, were dealt a blow before kick-off as Courtney Lawes was ruled out of the match with a gluteal injury.
Despite that a bumper crowd were treated to a fantastic start at the Gardens, with both sides looking to play from deep. Tommy Freeman came close to scoring from Rory Hutchinson’s grubber-kick, but Calvin Nash bundled the ball into touch and Saints then coughed up possession trying to take the resulting lineout quickly.
Munster made Saints pay for a mistake at scrum time after 13 minutes, as the hosts missed the strike on their own put in inside the 22 to hand back possession in a dangerous position, and Coombes burrowed over from short range.
Joey Carbery made no mistake with the routine conversion to make it 7-0, although Saints reduced the deficit five minutes later via a Smith penalty, as Munster conceded a series of penalties inside their own 22 before eventually skipper Lewis Ludlam pointed to the posts.
In the 25th minute, Saints’ back-line were adjudged to have been offside during a defensive scrum on the edge of the 22, and Carbery took the three points on offer to make it 10-3.
Munster’s fly-half however was involved again moments later as he blocked off George Furbank to hand Northampton a kickable penalty, with Smith obliging from the tee.
But, four minutes before the break, the visitors came up with a key score to create some daylight, with Coombes the man to go over again from short range following a five-metre lineout.
Carbery again was on target with the extras to take the scoreline to 17-6, and that was how it stayed for the remainder of the match despite relentless Saints pressure during the second half.
Northampton won two penalties in Munster’s half early in the second 40, but rather than kicking for the posts, they went into the corner and could not get over the line – with Jack O’Donoghue coming up with a key turnover.
The game then really ignited in the 53rd minute as both sides got involved in a big scuffle; the volume inside the stadium went up a couple of notches, but Ludlam and O’Donoghue both saw a yellow in the aftermath for their part in starting the melee.
There was another flash point in the 57th minute when replacement Munster scrum-half Craig Casey was shown a yellow card for taking out James Ramm in the air as the Australian winger looked set to score in the corner – referee Pierre-Baptiste Nuchy ruled that the sin-binning was sufficient and opted against also awarding a penalty try to Saints.
Despite losing players to the bin, Munster were defending stoically as the men in Black, Green and Gold built phase after phase inside their 22 and won a series of penalties.
Carbery became the next player to see yellow on 67 minutes as a result of persistent infringements, but still Munster showed why they have conceded the second-fewest points in the United Rugby Championship so far this season by holding firm until the final whistle.
Saints will enjoy a bye weekend in the Gallagher Premiership over Christmas before returning to home soil to welcome Harlequins to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on New Year’s Day.