Ruthless Saracens withstand early onslaught to crush Munster's European dream
Munster 10 Saracens 26
Munster will have to wait to take their place back at the top of Europe again after defending champions Saracens handed them a harsh lesson on what it takes to win at this level nowadays.
This is a good Munster team who are en route back to where they feel they belong but they came up against a very good Saracens team who are at the peak of their powers.
It was just Munster's third defeat in six months but it is the one that will hurt the most as they dominated the first half but still found themselves 6-3 behind.
Munster's defence has rightly come in for plenty of praise this season but against a rearguard as good as their own, their lack of invention in attack cost them a place in the Champions Cup final.
Mako Vunipola's 54th minute try had been a long time coming but even before that, Saracens had butchered two glorious try scoring opportunities, while a last-ditch tackle spared Munster's blushes before the brilliant loosehead prop found the crucial breakthrough.
So much of Munster's game-plan depends on their accurate kicking game but far too often it was off the mark at a sold-out Aviva Stadium.
Conor Murray was plastered on the front of the match programme and was out on the pitch before kick off in his boots but he wasn't quite ready to make his return from the troublesome neck/shoulder problem that has kept him out since Ireland's Six Nations defeat to Wales last month.
Mind games on Munster's part? Perhaps, but Saracens were unlikely to ever be fazed either way and so it was left to Duncan Williams, a vastly experienced campaigner who made his 133rd appearance for the province.
Munster's half-backs found it difficult all afternoon however and while the tactical kicking was nowhere near where it should be at this level, Tyler Bleyendaal will rue a very kickable missed penalty just before the hour mark.
The metronomic Owen Farrell was on target a couple of minutes later to put his side into a 16-3 lead and that was the game.
Munster supporters promised to paint the Aviva red and the cacophony they created was special. Most teams would be intimated by it, but this Saracens team have been around the block and they thrived in the unforgettable atmosphere.
Rassie Erasmus has turned Munster's fortunes but ultimately they are still some way short of where they need to be and Saracens proved that.
Chris Wyles came off the bench to seal the deal 10 minutes from the end but the damage had already been done as Munster were left wondering what might have been.
Munster knew they needed a positive start and a huge shove from their front-row allowed the ball to spill loose and when Tommy O'Donnell held Farrell in the tackle, Munster were on the front foot.
Saracens were twice forced to concede penalties deep inside their 22, the second of which might have been warranted a yellow card but Romain Poite was happy to let it go this time.
Tyler Bleyendaal kicked three points after six minutes to reward Munster for their early pressure but from there, they found it difficult break through a resolute Saracens wall.
The English side slowly played their way into the contest and they should have punished Munster when they offered the first glimpse of their attacking threat.
Billy Vunipola made a trademark big carry in midfield and in the blink of an eye, Saracens cut Munster's defence to ribbons but Sean Maitland's final pass for Richard Wigglesworth was poor and the chance was lost.
It was hugely uncharacteristic by Saracens but it was a clear warning sign of what they were capable of.
Andrew Conway was pinged for not rolling away after quarter of an hour and Farrell levelled it with an easy penalty in front.
Munster were continuing to dominate territory and possession but it was all too predictable in attack.
Maitland took Conway out in the air and as the crowd bayed for blood, Poite was again unmoved but on 23 minutes, he was reaching for his yellow card as Jackson Wray's high tackle on Williams saw him spend 10 minutes in the bin.
Munster piled the pressure on again but Saracens continued to repel the onslaught with relative ease.
Wray returned from the bin and within seconds, Saracens won a scrum penalty and Farrell put his side into the lead for the first time.
Having soaked up the barrage of pressure, it felt like a crucial moment in the game and so it proved to be.
Munster had yet another chance to build the phases deep inside Sarries' half after Maro Itoje was penalised at the lineout but just like they had done throughout opening 40 minutes, they couldn't find a way through as they went in at the break three points behind.
A Peter O'Mahony steal early in the second half lifted Munster but it was Saracens who were growing in confidence.
Chris Ashton should have scored in the corner as another chance was missed before Jean Deysel's first contribution off the bench forced a knock on from George Kruis who had the line at his mercy.
The warning signs were glaring and with O'Mahony gone off with a head injury, Munster were powerless to stop Mako Vunipola burrowing his way over from close range after a powerful rolling maul was just stopped short.
Farrell's conversion bisected the posts and suddenly Munster were 13-3 behind after 55 minutes.
Bleyendaal's poor penalty miss compounded his side's struggles and when his opposite number added another three points, Munster were struggling.
Wyles' 70th minute try was again converted by Farrell as a deathly silence fell around Dublin 4. The England out-half added another penalty for good measure as the Munster hoards headed for the exits.
Those who had left early missed CJ Stander get over for a consolation try late on that Ian Keatley converted. It put some respectability on the score line at least but that will be of little comfort to Munster.
Almost fittingly, Munster's challenge came to an end with a loose kick and while it is not quite back to the drawing board, they know that when they come again next season, plenty of improvements will be needed when it comes to the crunch.
Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, J Taute (F Saili 55), R Scannell, K Earls (D Sweetnam 64); T Bleyendaal (I Keatley, 71), D Williams; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 52), N Scannell (R Marshall 60), J Ryan (S Archer 64); D Ryan, B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt) (D O'Callaghan 52), T O'Donnell (J Deysel 50), CJ Stander.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (A Lozowski 75), B Barritt (capt), S Maitland (C Wyles 62); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 72); M Vunipola (T Lamositele 72), J George (S Brits 50), V Koch (P Du Plessis 72); M Itoje (J Hamilton 75), G Kruis; M Rhodes, J Wray (S Burger 55), B Vunipola.
REF: R Poite (France)