Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hardworking Saracens too savvy for Rassie's men

Munster 10 Saracens 26

Referee Romain Poite signals for Saracens’ second try of the game, scored by Chris Wyles. Photo: Brendan Moran
Referee Romain Poite signals for Saracens’ second try of the game, scored by Chris Wyles. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Most coaches would be happy enough if, on a regular basis, their team was a nightmare to play against. If Mark McCall numbers himself in that group then more often than not, for him, match day is a happy day. And certainly Saracens looked well pleased with themselves, for not only did their fifth straight European semi-final appearance finish in comfort, it had all the appearances of a performance that started on a laptop and moved - with only the odd change in punctuation - through to the field.

They will move on the final in Edinburgh next month needing to change very little, regardless of whether it is Clermont or Leinster who await them. The bad news for Sarries' dance partner that day is that McCall's team can, when the circumstances demand it, get around the floor as well as stand toe to toe.

Sometimes in the countdown to a big occasion all the signs are that it will be memorable for all the right reasons. The Aviva was three thousand away from capacity and we were blessed with perfect conditions. That the support was hopelessly lopsided in Munster's favour was hardly a surprise, and neither did it take from the scene.

McCall had been clear in his comments during the week that since the Vicarage Road days his lads knew how to block out the echo, so an ear-splitting din would be a luxury. Either way they would cope. And they did.

It's fair to say that the only period in which they looked rattled was the early part of the opening quarter, which is not a bad way to be in an 80-minute contest. Munster started as if they would slap Saracens about the chops at the scrum, but soon enough that perceived strength would become a weakness.

And even when Munster were first out of the blocks, with a Tyler Bleyendaal penalty on seven minutes, the subtext was that Sarries were happy enough to give up three points instead of seven.

Munster's Tyler Bleyendaal is tackled by Saracens' Richard Wigglesworth. Photo: PA
Munster's Tyler Bleyendaal is tackled by Saracens' Richard Wigglesworth. Photo: PA

"I thought our defence was extraordinary," McCall said afterwards. "There was that set early on where we came away conceding only three points, which was a result at that point."

It's hard to think of another team in this hemisphere who defend with the same level of aggression and accuracy. And they enjoy it.

Against a side like Munster it is especially effective, for when they get into the opposition 22 they rely almost exclusively on getting around the corner. More often that not there were a few defenders ready and waiting.

In those circumstances the late try for CJ Stander was not even close to being in the consolation class. He had struggled to be fit, and his struggle didn't end there. Having considered an extension on his gaff to accommodate all the man-of-the-match awards he won't have argued with it going across the fence to Billy Vunipola. No arguments there.

A disappointed Francis Saili after the match. Photo: PA
A disappointed Francis Saili after the match. Photo: PA

Indeed the only complaints from the Munster fans - the unattached will rightly claim it was hard to watch - will be that their team was short Conor Murray, and suffered accordingly. And that Tyler Bleyendaal had an ordinary game in what has been a stellar season. At 3-13 approaching the hour mark the Kiwi pushed wide a handy enough penalty kick, which summed up his day. If Duncan Williams had struggled with his kicking game then Bleyendaal got precious little go-forward ball to play with. And as it was, Munster were opting to play most of their rugby straight off nine, to one-off runners. Food and drink to Saracens.

The stats served only to highlight the frustration of the home side. They had nearly two-thirds possession and territory, and carried far more ball. The tone was set in the first half, by the end of which Sarries were 6-3 ahead. Owen Farrell - who was 100 per cent off the tee and not far off that everywhere else - tied the game on 17 minutes after a very effective starter play after a lineout put Munster under serious pressure.

They were comfortable enough too to ride out 10 minutes midway through the half when Jackson Wray was binned for a high tackle on Williams. During that period Munster lost control of a promising-looking maul, and had Niall Scannell turned over in the Saracens 22 when the away team were at the peak of their defensive mindset. Bad omen that.

Farrell nudged them ahead just before the break with a scrum penalty against Dave Kilcoyne, who carried well, and not much changed after the break. Indeed the longer that second half went on the further Munster were getting from the target. Because it was a low-scoring game until the last 10 minutes it would have been madness to rule them out. But their vital signs were looking increasingly weak, bar the odd steal out of touch. But even those two steals didn't discommode the away side.

On 54 minutes Mako Vunipola got over from close-in after heavy pressure and Farrell's conversion, to make it 13-3 to Sarries, left Munster needing a dramatic swing. They didn't get it. Rather they kept on suffering, bit by bit, until it was all over. They will have no complaints.

Munster's Duncan Williams and Andrew Conway compete for possession against Saracens' Sean Maitland. Photo: Reuters
Munster's Duncan Williams and Andrew Conway compete for possession against Saracens' Sean Maitland. Photo: Reuters

Scorers - Munster: Stander try; Bleyendaal pen, Keatley con. Saracens: M Vunipola, Wyles try each; Farrell 4 pens, 2 cons

Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, J Taute (F Saili 55), R Scannell, K Earls (D Sweetnam 64); T Bleyendaal (I Keatley 72), D Williams; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 53), N Scannell ( R Marshall 61), J Ryan (S Archer 64), D Ryan, B Holland, P O'Mahony (D O'Callaghan 53 HIA), CJ Stander, T O'Donnell (J Deysel 51)

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (R Lozowski 80), B Barritt (capt), S Maitland (C Wyles 63); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 72); M Vunipola (T Lamositele 72), J George (S Brits 51), V Koch (P du Plessis 72), M Itoje, G Kruis, B Vunipola, M Rhodes, J Wray (yc 24-34)(S Burger 56)

Referee: R Poite (France)

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