O'Gara proves the perfect 10 to give Munster clinical edge
Faced with the prospect of having two defeats dragging them under, with three rounds still to go, Munster paddled like crazy and stayed afloat before a full house at Thomond Park last night. You would hope for a few things in the rematch in Vicarage Road next Sunday: a better game for a start; a less lopsided refereeing performance; and some more enterprise from the hosts who will need to do something positive to regain the lead in Pool 1.
With Edinburgh tryless, and without a match point, after three games, their role of whipping boys might allow both Saracens and Munster to emerge from this group, but Sarries will have to win the return leg to keep that prospect alive.
They will tell themselves that the normally reliable Owen Farrell will hardly ever be at the 43 per cent mark on his shooting stats this season, let alone twice in eight days. Munster on the other hand will expect Ronan O'Gara to come in around the 100 per cent mark, because that's what he does in this competition.
He might easily have picked up the man-of-the-match award ahead of James Coughlan, who you suspect got it for his endurance, being so short of match fitness. Dave O'Callaghan too, who is getting some more limelight thanks to the injury to CJ Stander, worked himself to a standstill and put up with a fair degree of pain en route. It remains to be seen if he is fit for Sunday.
In the context of this sort of cup tie O'Gara is invaluable. You'd imagine he had a fair bit of influence over Munster's approach which was well removed at times from some of what they were doing in the Pro 12. Mindful of being turned over if they went from one touchline to the other and back, they often attacked Saracens head-on, stepping back inside – making more metres than you would have thought – and keeping the Sarries' defence honest.
That the home side were so comfortable given their issues with referee Pascal Gauzerre was remarkable. If there was a feeling of relief in the Munster camp that referee Romain Poite had been replaced for this gig, after an accident on the ice which left him with a back injury, then it was shortlived once they saw how Mr Gauzerre was going to operate.
By the end of the first quarter the home side were trailing 3-8 on the penalty count, a stunning stat for only 20 minutes. It finished 11-17. The last of that first batch had come with him sending Donncha O'Callaghan and Rhys Gill to the bin after a prolonged disagreement that looked like it might get out of hand. The referee took advice from his assistant, turfed the offenders out for 10 minutes, and when he restarted with a penalty to Saracens you thought the crowd were going to lose the plot altogether.
It told you something about the territorial battle. Yardage was evenly split and neither side could rely as they wished on their lineout. Much of the war was waged between the 22s, and for the first 40 minutes the only clear try-scoring opportunity was when a neat Munster lineout move – they are never short of them in fairness – put Conor Murray away at the tail, but he couldn't connect with Simon Zebo when they arrived at the Saracens sticks.
Munster were 9-3 up at the break, and might have had another three only for O'Gara to miss narrowly with a drop goal attempt on the last play of the half. When Farrell left another one short early in the second half you knew they were in trouble, for they are not geared for creating much in the way of try-scoring stories. Their only bit of bright, inventive rugby in that second period saw a decision sent upstairs after a fine tackle in the corner on Will Fraser by Zebo.
The Munster wing undid the good in that one though with a daft late tackle on Chris Ashton when there were just six minutes left. Farrell missed that one, but secured the losing bonus with two minutes left.
In between O'Gara had kept nudging Munster forward, both on the scoreboard and around the park. They became a bit more adventurous as the half developed, but not so much that they strayed down blind alleys, asking to be mugged.
He had struck twice in three minutes to put Munster 15-6 in front, and given Farrell's issues with the tee it looked like the English/South African outfit would come away with nothing.
In the circumstances they were pleased with the one point. Munster are glad to be back on track, but they would have been happier still had they kept their opponents pointless.
Scorers – Munster: R O'Gara 5 pens, Saracens: O Farrell 3 pens
Munster: F Jones (C Laulala 67); D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo (I Keatley 75); R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 67), M Sherry (D Varley 67), BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan (yc 20-30), D Ryan, Dave O'Callaghan (P Butler 63), J Coughlan, P O'Mahony
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (D Strettle 58), N de Kock 9R Wigglesworth 51); R Gill (yc 20-30; M Vuniploa 51), S Brits (J Smit 60), M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 60), K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (A Saull 66)
Referee: P Gauzerre (France)
Sunday Indo Sport