Saturday 26 May 2018

Munster are outmuscled and outclassed in dismal exit

Saracens 33 Munster 10

Saracens' Chris Ashton evades a tackle from Munster's Simon Zebo to score his side's third try of the game
Saracens' Chris Ashton evades a tackle from Munster's Simon Zebo to score his side's third try of the game
Simon Zebo, Munster, beats the tackle of Owen Farrell, Saracens
Paul O'Connell, Munster, in action against Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Andrew Conway, Munster, is tackled by Owen Farrell, Saracens

eddie butler

Munster have woven the richest panel in the tapestry of European rugby over the past 20 years. Theirs has been a story of insuperable defiance, usually involving pulling off a miracle result at Thomond Park in Limerick in the last pool round. Not this year.

There is still a game to play at home, but Munster are going no further, firmly dumped out of contention by the rampant Saracens, for whom the Vunipola brothers were mountainously impressive.

Mako drove the scrum ferociously on his loosehead side, and number eight Billy galloped unstoppably in open play, red shirts bouncing off him, drops of blood he left behind. The watching Graham Rowntree, the England forwards' coach, had something to cheer after the loss of Ben Morgan.

Munster had never lost three European games on the bounce, but are left staring at defeats to Clermont home and away and now this. They never found a rhythm, never managed to shake off the clumsiness of throwing passes into thin air, dropping the ball or kicking it dead.

Paul O'Connell, the epitome of his province's defiance over the past 14 seasons, threw as many wayward passes as anyone. This was his heaviest defeat in Europe and his team's worst since they lost 60-19 in Toulouse in 1997, back in the days before they became a genuine force.

Saracens had lost away at Thomond Park in round 2, but came out full of purpose, concentrating on the very pressure points that had yielded in Ireland. The scrum in particular was a bonus from the outset, a chance to dish out serious pain immediately after a minor infraction.

There were other pickings. Munster came with the intention of kicking high to the two wings, Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles. But Duncan Williams was so deliberate with his preparations that it was inevitable that sooner or later he would be charged down. Alistair Hargreaves obliged and nearly set up an early try.

Williams was soon caught again, this time by Ashton as the scrum-half tried to run from his own 22. The incident led to a penalty, the first of seven kicks landed by Owen Farrell for a personal tally of 18. He was soon involved in the first try, which started with a driven scrum and ended with Wyles touching down after crisp passing from Farrell, Ashton and Alex Goode.

The second try came when a penalty was quickly taken and Marcelo Bosch's pass put Wyles in enough space for the wing to fashion a clever kick towards the goalline. Ashton, the consummate poacher, was first to arrive. The home team were halfway to a bonus point and Munster were trailing by 20 points - Ian Keatley kicked a penalty - at the interval.

Munster appeared from the changing-room early. Either they could take no more of a tongue-lashing from Anthony Foley or the coach had sent them out to warm up and start all over again. For a minute or two they played with more purpose, with Andrew Conway clever with his footwork and the under-used Simon Zebo making a clean break.

It led to nothing and soon Billy Vunipola was charging the other way, and just as impressively slipping a pass out of contact to Wyles. There was no immediate reward; just more signs that Munster were once again coming apart. The worst moment came when Duncan Casey threw into a lineout at the very moment when his target turned his back on the hooker. One of those days. Every team has them. . . except Munster don't. This was a grim first for them.

It grew only worse when Farrell kicked the last of his four penalties and when James Cronin was sent to the sin-bin for taking out Richard Wigglesworth at a ruck. It should come as no real surprise that at the very bottom of their pit Munster rallied. It was not the defiance of legend - more an echo - but at least there was a scrap to be had from this chastening experience.

Peter O'Mahony led the charge. Or rather the flanker led the way with a delicate dummy, a show and go that put him briefly in the clear. Support arrived, the red blanket of yore, and Denis Hurley was diving over the line. There was a stirring among the travelling horde, a swelling of impossible hope. It soon sank again, Jamie George showing that O'Mahony wasn't the only forward able to manipulate the ball. The hooker ran wide, straightened and gave an inch-perfect pass to Ashton, who celebrated with that old swan dive, the one that somehow never fails to trigger a certain sense of irritation.

If there was one (other) regret it was that Saracens did not manage to cross for a fourth try and secure the bonus point. Still, they probably did not start the day thinking that it would be within their reach. As it is, they travel buoyantly to Clermont Auvergne. What an achievement that would be, to win at the Marcel Michelin. Perhaps there is a miracle result to be had in Europe after all.

Scorers - Saracens: Ashton 2 tries, Wyles try; Farrell 4 pens, 3 cons. Munster: Hurley try; Keatley pen, con.

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (B Ransom 73), B Barritt (C Hodgson 64), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 64); M Vunipola (R Barrington 66), J George, P Du Plessis (J Johnston 66); J Hamilton (M Itoje 73), A Hargreaves (capt); K Brown (E Joubert 66), J Burger, B Vunipola.

Munster: F Jones; A Conway, P Howard (K Earls 47), D Hurley, S Zebo ( R O'Mahony 74); I Keatley (JJ Hanrhan 74), D Williams; J Cronin (J Ryan 76), D Casey (E Guinazu 61), BJ Botha (S Archer 59); D Foley, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J Ryan 67-76), CJ Stander (D O'Callaghan 27).

Referee: R Poite (FFR)

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