Northampton Saints frustrated after Munster's victory

13th November 2011

It was Paul O'Connell who best summed up how Northampton lost this classic match, victims of a scarcely believable climax which saw Munster go through 41 phases before Ronan O'Gara nailed the daddy of all drop-goal winners. "If Rog could orchestrate every game that's the way he'd like them all to end," his grateful captain said. "It's a lovely feeling to have a guy who wants to be in that position every time. He relishes those situations."

O'Gara's steely competitiveness, though, was far from the whole story. Northampton are set to make a formal complaint about the performance of the referee, Nigel Owens, and will forever feel they were robbed of a victory which would have transformed their situation in Pool One. Jim Mallinder, the Saints director of rugby, could not hide his bitter frustration, suggesting the Welsh official had been swayed by a vociferous home crowd and had made too many crucial mistakes.

"The game did hinge on some crucial refereeing decisions. He just got quite a lot wrong, it's as simple as that," said Mallinder. "I think people can see it going on. Some of the breakdowns are very difficult in terms of what's going on and some of the 50-50 decisions you don't mind. But what the referee's got to get right are the obvious ones."

Top of his list was Owens's decision to halt a prolonged Saints forward drive in the closing stages and award a hugely controversial scrum to Munster, helping to tee up O'Gara's last-ditch strike.

"You don't wheel it when you're moving forwards," said Mallinder. "We had dominance in that area yet we were penalised there twice. They are crucial calls. If it wasn't for a few refereeing decisions we'd have won. There are channels to go through and we will be doing that. We will look back with massive frustration."

It is becoming a familiar lament, with more and more big games being decided by fractional refereeing calls. Owens also attracted criticism at the World Cup but referees are human and the intensity of the modern game is making their job increasingly hard. Either way, a couple of possible knock-ons went undetected during Munster's marathon late surge, while one or two red-shirted bodies flopped off their feet. Northampton's forwards opted not to dive in but lost anyway. "They were scared stiff of giving away any penalties at those breakdowns," said Mallinder. "I thought there were a couple of occasions when Munster were sealing off the ball."

The consolation for Northampton is that their losing bonus point could yet prove significant and their England contingent, perhaps not coincidentally, are looking more like their old selves since returning to their club. Courtney Lawes and Ben Foden were outstanding in the first half and Tom Wood was not far behind in the second. Chris Ashton scored a fine try created by Foden and Saints' two English half-backs, Ryan Lamb and Lee Dickson, had influential games.

"There was a bit of talk I heard from the spectators that they were going to try and get at Ryan Lamb and affect him mentally but he was fantastic," said Mallinder.

Had a raking punt from their fly-half not bounced dead, unluckily, shortly before the interval, Northampton would probably have gone in 13-7 ahead. But Doug Howlett's superb solo try breathed fresh life into a Munster team whose back-row, for the first time in European competition, did not contain David Wallace, Alan Quinlan or Anthony Foley.

If a degree of fortune surrounded Northampton's second try, by James Downey, the visitors could have buried Munster had their Russian winger Vasily Artemyev not knocked on close to the line with 15 minutes left. O'Gara duly took advantage, leaving Northampton with little time to regroup before the Scarlets visit Franklin's Gardens on Friday night.

Munster Murphy; Howlett, Barnes (Chambers, 67), Mafi, Hurley; O'Gara, Murray (O'Leary, 61); Du Preez, Varley, Botha (Hayes, 71), D Ryan (O'Callaghan, 54), O'Connell (capt), O'Mahony, Ronan, Coughlan (Leamy, 67).

Tries Varley, Howlett Cons O'Gara 2 Pens O'Gara 2 Drop goal O'Gara

Northampton Saints Foden (Pisi, 72); Ashton, Clarke, Downey, Artemyev; Lamb, Dickson (Roberts, 67); Tonga'uiha (Waller, 69), Hartley (capt), Mujati (Doran-Jones, 71), Lawes (Manoa, 64), Sorenson, Clark (Dowson, 67), Wood, Wilson.

Tries Ashton, Downey Con Lamb Pens Lamb 3.

Referee N Owens (Wales) Attendance 25,543.