Thursday 23 November 2017

Munster’s aura in tatters as they exit Europe with a whimper

Chris Ashton celebrates after scoring his side's second try of the victory over Munster at Allianz Park
Chris Ashton celebrates after scoring his side's second try of the victory over Munster at Allianz Park
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

MUNSTER’s era of European dominance ended when Leinster beat them at Croke Park in 2009, but today’s humiliating defeat in London may well prove to be the day their aura died.

Saracens 33 Munster 10

For more than a decade, the province have managed huge performances when they most needed them, defying odds and expectations to reach the latter stages of the old Heineken Cup in 14 out of the last 15 seasons.

When the last eight present themselves for the first Champions Cup instalment, their famous name won’t be there. Nor do they deserve to be after they were comprehensively outplayed by Saracens.

Despite the noisy backing of their large travelling support, Anthony Foley’s men failed to fire a single shot and were comprehensively beaten up by a last year's finalists who produced their best performance of the season when it really mattered.

Conor Murray’s injury meant Duncan Williams was front and centre at scrum-half and the Corkman endured a nightmare outing. Blocked down inside his own ‘22 by Alistair Hargreaves after just four minutes, he grew increasingly nervous and it seemed to infect his team-mates.

It wasn’t solely Williams’ fault by any means, the scrum was obliterated depriving their backs of any front-foot ball and, while Peter O’Mahony stole the first of Saracens’ ropey lineouts, it wouldn’t prove a factor.

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Billy Vunipola in the Champions Cup encounter
Paul O'Connell is tackled by Billy Vunipola in the Champions Cup encounter

Losing CJ Stander to an ankle injury compounded their issues but, in truth, the game was already going against Munster at that stage.

Owen Farrell opened the scoring with a penalty after Williams covered Chris Ashton’s kick and then took the wrong option by trying to go around the pacey winger. Denis Hurley went off his feet trying to come to his team-mate’s aid, and the England fly-half punished the error.

Andrew Conway found some space to offer hope of a response, while a Stander quick-tap showed that Munster could offer some threat with ball in hand; but the game-plan was to kick and a loose effort by Ian Keatley handed the English side their chance.

His probe went dead, meaning a scrum and good attacking position. After finding no joy around the right, Saracens used Billy Vunipola as a decoy and Conway bought it, allowing Farrell find Ashton who fed Alex Goode and he put Chris Wyles - a late replacement for David Strettle, over.

Peter O'Mahony is tackled by Billy Vunipola of Saracens during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Allianz Park
Peter O'Mahony is tackled by Billy Vunipola of Saracens during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Allianz Park

Farrell converted and, although Ashton escaped more than a penalty for taking Simon Zebo out in the air, Munster couldn’t take advantage of their field position and with their scrum being destroyed, Farrell sent over another penalty after Paul O’Connell came in at the side of a forward-marching maul.

Keatley pulled a penalty back when Saracens were penalised for an early push at the scrum, but as half-time approached the rampant home side punished more indiscipline as Felix Jones went off his feet at a ruck.

Richard Wigglesworth tapped the penalty and fed Marcelo Bosch, his long pass freed Wyles who, realising Jones was going to cut his gallop short, brilliantly chipped inside for Ashton to gleefully touch down.

Farrell converted and then added a penalty after Dave Foley hauled down a maul. In between Billy Vunipola had marched through a swathe of Munster tacklers as if they weren’t there.

The half-time whistle went and Munster trudged off having been utterly dominated.

They re-emerged for a quick warm-up before the second-half resumed and Zebo almost sparked them to life with a stunning break that gave the away side their first meaningful visit to the opposition ‘22, but Saracens’ defence held strong and, eventually, Mako Vunipola shrugged off Paul O’Connell’s clearout to force a penalty after Pat Howard had gotten isolated and they could escape.

The Ireland captain wasn’t enjoying his afternoon and his slack pass from the base of a ruck gave Saracens further field position from which they could launch the younger Vunoipola.

Another maul offence saw referee Romain Poite put the Munster captain Peter O’Mahony on warning as Farrell found the corner.

Munster defended the maul and f0rced Mako Vunipola into touch, but a terrible lineout throw from Duncan Casey gave the hosts a 5m scrum. Sarries marched forward but forgot the ball, Williams disrupted and, when big Billy carried again, O’Mahony forced a penalty at the breakdown.

Keatley relieved the pressure and Munster looked to attack, sending Conway over half-way with slick hands until their ruckers went off their feet and the onus switched back to black.

Another scrum was forced backwards until James Cronin conceded the penalty, allowing Farrell extend the lead to 23 points.

A thunderous Jacques Burger hit on Simon Zebo and subsequent turnover put Munstrer on the back foot again, their maul survived and then their wide defence held firm; their scrum held on and Williams narrowly avoided a yellow card as he came around the side in desperation.

Farrell sent the penalty wide when the corner might have been more judicious given the pool table.

The yellow finally came when James Cronin played Neil de Kock at a ruck and Farrell went to touch but Munster managed an escape.

Another piece of Zebo magic freed Williams up the left and a late tackle from Billy Vunipola handed Munster a penalty.

O’Mahony, who escaped punishment after an altercation with Burger, then peeled off the back of the lineout to carve open the defence and Hurley crashed over to narrow the gap to 16 points with the help of Keatley’s conversion.

That breathed life into the away team, but the brilliant Billy Vunipola made an impressive steal, and the English side went for the jugular with a multi-phase play that ended with an ‘Ash-Splash’ celebration for their prolific winger.

Things descended into farce as Poite wasn’t hand to award the try, he was down injured but the score was given anyway. Farrell converted and Christophe Berdos took over the whistling.

Saracens pushed for a fourth try and they would have deserved it had it come, but Munster held firm.

One last act of defiance, but they needed so much more.

Saracens - A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (B Ransom 75), B Barritt (C Hodgson 65), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 65); M Vunipola (R Barrington 68), J George (B Sharman 75), P du Plessis (J Johnston 68); J Hamilton (M Itoje 75), A Hargreaves (capt); K Brown (E Joubert 68), J Burger, B Vunipola.

Munster - F Jones; A Conway, P Howard (K Earls 48), D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony 75); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 75), D Williams; J Cronin (T O’Donnell 77), D Casey (E Guinazu 62), BJ Botha (S Archer 59); D Foley (B Holland 75), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J Ryan 68), CJ Stander (Dave O’Callaghan 28).

Ref - R Poite (France)

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