Munster saved their best for last in the pool stage as they hit last season's Heineken Cup finalist with a record score of 51 points to guarantee themselves a home quarterfinal.
They notched their first bonus point of the campaign as they made it six out of six for the first time in their European history. Wing Simon Zebo grabbed a second half hat-trick to clinch the bonus point and Ronan O'Gara chipped in with 24 points.
Having clinched the pool the previous weekend, this game at stadium:mk was all about securing a home draw. They did that and more as they overtook reigning champions Leinster in the quarterfinal stakes with 25 poitns to their 24.
Northampton Saints knew they had to win with a bonus point to stand any chance of reaching the Heineken Cup quarterfinals and also had to be aware that if the Scarlets won in Castres Olympique they could pinch a potential Amlin Challenge Cup place.
As for Munster, the only unbeaten team in the tournament after five rounds of pool matches, they needed to grab at least a losing bonus point to ensure they played their quarterfinal at their beloved Thomond Park.
The home side came into the game on the back of five successive wins in all tournaments and were seeking revenge for having victory snatched from their grasp by an 84th minute Ronan O'Gara drop goal in Round one. They started well and Ryan Lamb rewarded their dominance with two early penalties.
O'Gara was quick to respond, but a penalty try awarded when the Munster pack disintegrated at a scrum in the shadow of their posts allowed Saints to stretch into a 10 point lead. Munster looked slightly stunned, but their wealth of experience came to the fore and the metronomic boot of O'Gara gave them some impetus.
Munster had confirmed themselves as pool winners the previous weekend, but there was the tantalising prize of a record unbeaten march through their pool for the first time in their 17 years in the tournament if they could keep their winning run going.
Things were looking good when BJ Botha burrowed his way over from close range for a try and O'Gara's conversion was followed by a penalty that gave them the lead for the first time in the 37th minute.
But Lamb had the last laugh in the first-half with another penalty and it was all-square at the break. The capacity 22,000 crowd were gripped by the action and there was no let up in the intensity when the action resumed.
With their home draw under threat, Munster flexed their muscles and two tries in a breathtaking burst seemed to have put the result beyond doubt. Johne Murphy rounded off some great play in the right corner and then Denis Hurley sent Simon Zebo racing clear a few minutes later.
O'Gara converted one of them and kept hitting the mark as Saints continued to infringe. That 12 point lead was cut by a second Penalty Try awarded for another total destruction of the Munster scrum from five metres out, but the home side couldn't quite cut the gap to anything less than four points.
At 26-31 it was still anyone's game, but even though Lamb matched two more O'Gara penalties an interception try from Zebo from 60 metres not only sealed the victory, but guaranteed a home draw and took Munster ahead of the reigning champions Leinster to the top qualifying spot.
It was the first time this season in Europe that Munster had picked up a bonus point and now they have to break the Heineken Cup hoodoo by becoming the only team to win the trophy by winning nine straight games.
Zebo's hat-trick try and Ian Keatley's conversion took the score over 50 points and Scott Armstrong's last minute try was hardly any consolation for the shattered Saints.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 James Downey, 11 Vasily Artemyev, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran Jones, 19 Christian Day, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Scott Armstrong.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Peter O'Mahony, 6 Donnacha Ryan, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Mick O'Driscoll, 20 Dave O'Callaghan, 21 Tomas O'Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Danny Barnes.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
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