Saracens show steel of champions to end Munster’s European run

Rassie Erasmus’s side had their chances before English side slammed the door shut

Munster 10 Saracens 26

The final scoreline brooks no argument, Saracens deserving winners, because in the game-defining moments they managed to convert opportunities into points and ultimately that proved decisive.

Munster may reflect on a performance that only fitfully broached their lofty standards, kicking too often and for the most part poorly, and failing to shift the ball to the wider channels where there was more space, away from the heavily populated collision points of the gainline.

What will smart most is that they did have chances to score tries when the game was a contest and the outcome up for dispute, but a propensity to become narrow in attack and prescriptive to the point where they didn’t play with any heads-up intuition proved costly.

Munster halfbacks Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal needed to put a more expansive shape on the game, and refrained a little from kicking ball back to Saracens. They attacked the English club where the latter were strongest.

Injuries pre-match and during the game didn’t help Munster, especially against a Saracens side, who – especially in the second half – barely let them breathe. The defending European champions were hard-nosed and unrelenting in defence, edged the scrum interpretation, and were more muscular at the breakdown in forcing turnovers. They won or shaded many of the personal duels.

In the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, they possessed players who attracted multiple tacklers, broke through the first line of defence and were able to offload in the tackle, and when they got a sniff of the Munster line, in the second half, they made it count.

Munster fullback Simon Zebo had an outstanding game at fullback under the high ball, but symptomatic of the team's approach was that himself, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls were left twiddling their thumbs from an attacking perspective, save for the occasional cross-kick.

The pack, in which Billy Holland was outstanding, worked hard as a unit, the carried aggressively and to good effect at times but in the moments where the correct decision is the ultimate arbiter of whether points are scored or not, they erred.

Francis Saili made a difference on his arrival, his footwork and ability to beat defenders, gave Munster an attacking profile that had been largely absent. As Munster slipped further behind on the scoreboard, the anxiety grew, and Munster’s passing grew more ragged and ill judged, allowing the hard-charging Saracens defensive line to knock them back, losing metres and momentum in equal measure.

Munster were conspicuously narrow in attack at times in the opening 40 minutes. The forwards hogged possession, and at times that was perfectly understandable, because they made decent headway. But on three or four occasions, two of which were gilt-edged try-scoring chances, the space was closer to the touchline.

Munster’s halfbacks should have better appreciated the panoramic perspective of the pitch and if they didn’t, or couldn’t, then the communication should have come from Munster’s back three. Matches are won on those moments of rugby clarity.

Twice in the first half Munster galloped in the English club’s 22, their initial sorties around the fringes forced the Saracens defence to compress, but with numbers up and space out wide they tried to take the door off its hinges rather than open it.

There was room outside the Saracens midfield as the English side took to dropping three players deep in the backfield, including number eight Billy Vunipola. Munster failed to appreciate this, confining their gambits to narrow corridors or attacking through the boot of Williams and Bleyendaal.

Greater variety would have made them less predictable and perhaps forced Saracens to push more men wide, thereby leaving them more susceptible to the carrying of the Munster forwards.

The English side were only marginally less rigid, they too displaying a slavish addiction for the box-kick and a philosophy outside of that of ‘give it to one of the Vunipola brothers’ a reasonable tactic given their influence on the game.

However, they did manufacture the best chance of the half, only to watch it slip through the fingers, literally. Slick hands put Sean Maitland away but his inside pass in the to Richard Wigglesworth was knocked on by the scrumhalf with the line at his mercy. It wasn't an ideal pass but far from uncatchable; nerves perhaps.

Two Owen Farrell penalties to one from Bleyendaal provided the only scoring in a half dominated largely by perspiration. Saracens had played 10 minutes without openside Jackson Wray, who received a yellow card, for a high tackle on Williams but they survived numerical discrepancy without conceding points.

The first score in the second half was always going to be crucial as a momentum swing and it went Saracens' way. Munster supporters had barely finished exhaling when Chris Ashton failed to hang onto a decent and probable try-scoring chance, George Kruis butchered another by losing the ball in stretching for the line when Saracens did actually register the game's first try.

Mako Vunipola burrowed over from close range on 51 minutes, rewarding Saracens' dominance from the start of the second half. Munster captain Peter O'Mahony, so influential in the first half, particularly in nicking a couple of Saracens throws, was injured several phases before.

He went off for a HIA and never returned. Munster refused to buckle and having forced their way to the threshold of the Saracens’ 22, were awarded a penalty; unfortunately Bleyendaal couldn’t convert. Four minutes later Farrell made no mistake when handed his opportunity and at 16-3 after 62 minutes, Munster’s hopes were fading.

Saracens, as befits the champions they are, continued to apply pressure and with the help of their bench and the clever direction of Farrell, Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch and that unrelenting physicality front the pack, they retained a vice-like grip on the game.

When replacement Chris Wyles scored his side's second try on 70 minutes, latching on to a clever grubber kick, the result was effectively decided – Farrell's flawless place-kicking tagged on the conversion and a penalty – but to their credit Munster were bloody minded enough to play to the final whistle; the reward a try for CJ Stander, converted by Ian Keatley.

Saracens head for Edinburgh and for Munster an opportunity still lies ahead in the Guinness Pro12. And if they absorb the lessons from this defeat it will stand them in good stead for the remainder of this season and beyond.

It’s been a remarkable journey for Munster since last October and despite this disappointment, better days lie ahead. There is no shame in losing to a Saracens team, now unbeaten in 17 successive matches in Europe – 16 wins and a draw – and who are further down the road in their European journey.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 6 mins: Bleyendaal penalty, 3-0; 16: Farrell penalty, 3-3; 34: Farrell penalty, Half-time 3-6; 53: M Vunipola try, Farrell conversion, 3-13; 63: Farrell penalty, 3-16; 70: Wyles try, Farrell conversion, 3-23; 74: Farrell penalty, 3-26; 79: Stander try, Keatley conversion, 10-26.

MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: J Deysel for O'Donnell (50 mins); J Cronin for Kilcoyne, D O'Callaghan for O'Mahony ( both 52 mins); F Saili for Taute (55 mins); R Marshall for N Scannell (60 mins); S Archer for Ryan, D Sweetnam for Earls (both 64 mins; I Keatley for Bleyendaal (71 mins).

SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt (capt), S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch; M Itoje, G Kruis; M Rhodes, J Wray, B Vunipola.

Replacements: S Brits for George (50 mins); S Burger for Wray (55 mins); C Wyles for Maitland (62 mins); T Lamositele for M Vunipola, P du Plessis for Koch, B Spencer for Wigglesworth (all 71 mins); J Hamilton for Itoje, A Lozowski for Bosch (both 74 mins).

Yellow card: J Wray (Saracens) 22 mins.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)