More semi-final heartbreak for Munster as Saracens surge into Champions Cup final after storming second half
Saracens 32 Munster 16
The long wait goes on for Munster.
For the third successive year they fought their way past quality opposition to get to the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final and once again they came up against a better team. This was their seventh successive last four exit.
They will speak about learning the harsh lessons of a bitter loss and their main focus will again centre on their impoverished attack, but the gap between reaching the top four and making it to a final remains a chasm.
Two years ago they lost to the same opponents by 16 points and today they threw everything at their cause and lost by the same margin. Saracens were simply too strong in every facet of the game.
Joey Carbery and Keith Earls would have helped, but there will always be injuries and there were enough Munster stars and internationals on display to give this a good go. They need a sharper edge with ball in hand if they are to take the next step.
They defended as if their lives depended on it for 40 minutes, but then collapsed under the weight of the Sarries pressure in the third quarter. When the response came, it was far too little, far too late.
Full-back Mike Haley wilted under the warm Coventry sun in front of a disappointing crowd of 16,235. Saracens were ruthless in the way they targeted the former Sale Shark.
Eleven years ago, the same teams attracted 30,325 to the same venue when Munster last reached a final and their fans were in the majority at the Ricoh Arena today, but they were silenced long before the end.
Saracens lost Sean Maitland in the warm-up, but his replacement David Strettle got off to a good start by twice forcing Haley into aerial mistakes and the second led to CJ Stander being penalised for not rolling away.
Owen Farrell opened the scoring, but missed an attempt to double the lead with a wayward drop-goal.
It took seven minutes for Munster to get a foot-hold and it was Peter O’Mahony’s turnover that handed them the ball. Rory Scannell kicked for position and, after a couple of promising phases, Mako Vunipola went off his feet and Tyler Bleyendaal levelled.
With Munster doing well in contact, Farrell and Ben Spencer decided to pepper Haley with high balls with some success. They found Andrew Conway a tougher nut to crack, however, and the winger did brilliantly to take an important mark under pressure from Liam Williams.
The pressure was growing, but Rory Scannell did brilliantly to get to a chip-ahead before the attackers arrived and Haley superbly felled Alex Goode after he’d broken through and CJ Stander won a superb breakdown penalty.
Farrell did get a chance to put Sarries back in front after smashing Haley before he had hit the ground. The full-back held on too long and gave away a penalty when he should probably have had one of his own.
Haley continued to make up for his aerial issues with another superb last-man stop on Goode, but Munster were having to do a lot of defending.
It’s just as well they’re good at it. Haley pulled off a superb effort to deny Williams, before Darren Sweetnam scragged Strettle but their discipline slipped and Farrell made it 9-3.
Bleyendaal pulled a penalty back after Munster’s best set of attacking play led to Maro Itoje flopping at a ruck and they backed it up with a big defensive effort and then pounced for a levelling score when Itoje strayed again.
From distance, Conor Murray nailed a supreme effort, but a deliberate knock-on from O’Mahony allowed Farrell give his side a three point half-time lead.
It was extended within three minutes of the restart and, having held firm for so long in the first-half, Munster won’t be happy with how Michael Rhodes exploited Haley’s defensive error at the end of a 22-phase set to blow the game open.
Farrell made it a 10-point game and, when Haley knocked on, the scrum collapsed for the England out-half to make it 22-9.
Munster couldn’t get near the ball and the game slipped further from their grasp when Niall Scannell made a despairing, illegal turnover attempt and Farrell kicked his goal.
Van Graan threw JJ Hanrahan into the fray and the Kerryman got his team moving, but after attacking for so long the Saracens rear-guard clicked into gear and having repelled the Munster maul they held Chris Farrell up and drove him backwards to quell the potential uprising.
Finally, though, the men in red got a break as Jack O’Donoghue and Murray somehow conspired to rob the ball from Billy Vunipola’s feet and with Saracens set up to attack Munster moved it wide to Sweetnam to score.
Hanrahan converted to make it an 11-point game and Farrell missed a chance to further his side’s lead off the tee when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have played the ball on the deck.
Still, the conclusion had long looked inevitable and the game was finally put beyond doubt when Billy Vunipola forced his way over after Dan Goggin got lost under Murray’s box-kick, which gave Williams room to cut a dash through the Munster defence.
Vincent Koch got a yellow card, but it was all immaterial as Munster bowed out and Sarries booked their place in the Newcastle final.
They’ll take some stopping.
Saracens -- A Goode; D Strettle, A Lozowski, B Barritt (capt) (N Tompkins 41), L Williams; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 75); M Vunipola (R Barrington 63), J George (J Gray 75), T Lamositele (V Koch 59); M Itoje, G Kruis (T Lamositele 80); M Rhodes (S Burger 75), J Wray (W Skelton 58), B Vunipola.
MUNSTER – M Haley (D Goggin 51); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan 54), C Murray (A Mathewson 74); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 61), N Scannell (R Marshall 67), J Ryan (S Archer 51); J Kleyn (B Holland 61), T Beirne; P O’Mahoby (capt), J O’Donoghue (A Botha 67), CJ Stander.
Ref: J Garces (France)