Thursday 26 April 2018

Munster fail to push through an open door


A battle lost but still a war to be fought.

Ultimately, when this game was there for the taking, Munster simply didn't have the power or the panache to drive home the considerable advantage of having an extra man for 10 minutes in the final quarter of such a tight game.

In a wider context, qualification remains there for the taking but, as this match demonstrated in microcosm, there are severe doubts surrounding Munster's capability to see the job through.

Paris, you feel, may yet haunt this season's Heineken Cup challenge.

Having been slightly fortunate to be level at half-time, Munster seemed primed to pounce for home like so many days of yore but, when a 25-phase move on the hour saw them go sideways and backwards more often than not, Ronan O'Gara couldn't convert the drop goal that may have tipped the balance.

He was askew with two other kicks but there was more to this tale – in any event, his counterpart also missed twice from tee and twice with drop-goal efforts – and the imposing manner in which Saracens ironed out the creases from last week's dismal Limerick effort was marked.

Just as we suspected from a rare blank weekend for the Irish provinces, the opposition seemed to have much more room for improvement, with Saracens particularly dominant in their set-piece, especially from touch, where they were flawless compared to last week.

As much as Munster threatened territorially in a game devoid of real linebreaks, Saracens were often able to exit their red zone with ease; the away side simply weren't able to play the game in the right areas, or apply enough physical pressure, for long enough.

Saracens had laid out their defensive stall from the off, with their linespeed much more impressive than last weekend, and there was more physical intent from the phased play also.

Owen Farrell was fizzing the ball about smoothly and it was surprising that he stemmed an impressive stint of possession, emanating from a scrum penalty on halfway, by opting in vain for a drop goal.

From the restart, though, Mike Sherry was pinged in a ruck, and this time Farrell did nab the opening score, and already there was clear intent from the home side to make the former champions work harder for their gains.

A clever dink from O'Gara in midfield indicated the lack of space available on this minute soccer field, but Simon Zebo did terrifically well to gather and offload, although the move faltered.

Saracens were the team ramping up the pressure: Felix Jones was smashed by Brad Barritt and, after being pummelled again before the quarter was out, he was forced to depart prematurely, with Luke O'Dea slotting in.

That back-three change contributed directly to the game's opening try just a minute after the first quarter; Richard Wigglesworth sent a clever grubber beyond a flat Munster defence into the left corner, and, with nobody covering at home, David Strettle had an easy sliding finish.

Farrell's conversion pushed it to 10-3 and with creativity limited within the tight confines and suffocating defence, Munster needed something out of the ordinary to resuscitate their hopes.

Mercifully, Farrell handed it to them on a plate. With too much time on the ball to think, his floater from right to left for Barritt was intercepted by James Downey.

The centre, aware of his not considerable pace, manfully ploughed on far enough to connect with the trailing run of Doug Howlett, who skated in for the equalising try.

Now the home side were infected by doubt, messing up a five-yard line-out after Downey's missed tackle, before seeing their talisman, Chris Ashton, getting absolutely smashed in midfield by the excellent Casey Laulala.

The half ended with Farrell pushing a kickable penalty wide; the award had been farcical in any event and the away side, despite consuming an inordinate amount of pressure, were much happier jaunting into the sheds.

Farrell's mood didn't improve when he missed another penalty and, as the rain began to cascade and the wind to whirl, Munster sought to inject doubt into home minds. When Ashton was penalised after brilliant work by O'Dea, following up on O'Gara's raking high kick, the out-half was able to push Munster ahead for the first time.

However, at the very moment Munster seemed to take control, they lost it even though Farrell's own confidence was wobbling – captain Kelly Brown had to cajole him after a terrible knock-on.

However, Munster just couldn't get enough territory despite some pinpoint field positioning from O'Gara and, as Saracens retained their physicality, successive scrum and breakdown penalties allowed Farrell to ease his side back into the lead.

Then, just after the hour, came a potentially decisive moment as Howlett was caught by the flailing arm of Will Fraser, who was binned.

Surely this was Munster's moment.

From the resulting line-out, Munster prodded and probed, a la Northampton and Castres last year, but Saracens rocked Munster back until, in the 25th phase, Conor Murray set up O'Gara for the trademark drop goal attempt.

Agonisingly, it slipped beyond the target.

With Saracens bolstering their scrum with buoyant front-row replacements and Munster unable to counteract that, the home side pressed on with significant field advantage.

There was yet another chance for O'Gara, though, despite Saracens' protests when Matt Stevens was penalised at an engagement; yet again, though, O'Gara was off target and with it, one felt, went Munster's last hope of escaping with more than the single point.

Fraser turned from zero to hero when he followed up on Barritt's fine tackle on Zebo, who was desperately trying to run Munster from their own '22', and secured the penalty.

Farrell, his nerve now fully restored, slotted the kick to edge his side six points clear.

Munster had not looked like breaching the home defence all day and the game was resolved in that moment.

A game decided by marginal errors perhaps. And, from now on, a qualification process that allows for no more errors at all.

Saracens – A Goode (C Wyles 61); C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 51); R Gill (M Vunipola h-t), S Brits (J Smit 60), M Stevens; S Borthwick (c), M Botha; G Kruis, W Fraser, K Brown.

Munster – F Jones (L O'Dea 20); D Howlett (c), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W Du Preez (M Horan 72), M Sherry, BJ Botha (S Archer 77); Donncha O'Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O'Callaghan, P O'Mahony (P Butler 66), J Coughlan.

Ref: Jerome Garces (Fra).

Irish Independent

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