Saturday 24 March 2018

Neil Francis: One-dimensional Munster find Saracens far too difficult to live with

Murray presence sorely missed as champions expose gulf in class with ruthless efficiency

Billy Holland, supported by Donnacha Ryan, is tackled by Schalk Burger of Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Billy Holland, supported by Donnacha Ryan, is tackled by Schalk Burger of Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"It don't matter I won't do what you say, you've got the money and the power, I won't go your way. I can take from the people, they don't matter at all. I'll be waiting in the shadows till the day that you fall."

Kasabian: 'Underdog'

Maybe we misunderstood or underestimated the gulf in class. Quite how Munster kept the score to 26-10 is more a matter for Saracens management as they traipse up to Murrayfield in a few weeks' time. Not quite as clinical as you would have expected them to be as they got close to the line. Four certain tries where all Saracens had to do was hold on to the ball but the pass was too strong or the players did not get enough purchase on the ball. Either way, it did not seem to bother them that much.

I have very little time for Saracens or their owner or the style of rugby they play, but credit must be given to a complete team performance of practised competence. They seem to have an all-pitch awareness. Cynical but knowing all the angles, Saracens had this game in the bag before the match even started and Munster's attempt at playing the underdog and playing a strictly limited version of the game left you in no doubt even from 20 minutes out that there would only be one winner here.

Before everything else preparation is the secret of success. It is the sum of small efforts all across the park and because Munster were predictable and one-dimensional they became very easy to play against. Saracens , of course, also had the personnel and the resolve to stop them. Mark McCall did not have to think too hard about what they needed to do.

Saracens were half a yard offside all day and their line speed was consistent and suffocating. Stop Munster getting over the gain-line and half the battle is won. Munster made it much easier than it should have been. One-out runners close to the breakdown is where Saracens concentrate their defensive strength. They paid particular attention to CJ Stander and they had teams of tacklers waiting in reserve once the tackles went in.

There was no quick ball and five or six times during the game Munster ended up 10 to 15 metres behind the gain-line. At one stage Munster were forced back from their opponents' 22 to the 10-yard line.

Conor Murray, irrespective of the scoreline or what shape the game took, was a big loss. I don't know what it is - a left-footed scrum-half does not seem to have the same effect on putting the ball in the required area. Duncan Williams' box-kicking got worse as the game wore on.

As it was Munster very rarely managed to reclaim the ball or put sufficient pressure or chasers onto the Saracens back three. Saracens were very cynical in their approach here and they flooded the landing area with players who are quite legally entitled to hold their line directly in front of the intended catcher. Munster's chasers spent most of the match dodging statues which were in a direct line so that was one area of offence which was carefully parcelled off.

Munster's maul was quietly squeezed out of the game and yet again Saracens were quite difficult to deal with in this area as they got players - legally or illegally - in between Munster players which hindered either the transfer or the forward motion. Munster barely made more than 10 metres in any of their attempts here.

The scrum too is a source of great comfort to any visiting team, particularly at the Aviva. Two early squeezes apart, Saracens dealt capably with anything Munster could throw at them in this area. As the match wore on their confidence grew and they played for penalties at scrum time as they waited with the ball at the base of the scrum and then powered on the pressure. No scrum, no functioning lineout maul and no return from their kicking game - it was only a matter of time before the game was up.

Over the last couple of weeks there were calls for Seán Cronin of Leinster to be selected on the Lions. This was on the back of being out for 10 weeks or so and the player has the fillip of being fresh as the season draws to a close.

Saracens had the benefit of having George Kruis and Billy Vunipola who were both out for three months in and around the Christmas period. Kruis had a massive game yesterday - he is a powerhouse and absolutely deserved selection. His tackle count, his industry, his power and his chasing down of Munster players was crucial.

Vunipola did a dozen things on the pitch which were out of the ordinary and those two players and their influence told as the game became looser. Saracens back-row, who had spent a lot of the match neutralising Stander in the first half, began to play their own game in the second half and they sucked the sap out of Munster.

Owen Farrell, despite making a few mistakes, really is a big-game performer - in contrast to Tyler Bleyendaal, who had his worst game of the season. Maybe the pressure got to the young man but he struggled to find avenues where he could send his team down for profit and his execution was not what it was required to be.

His penalty miss in the 58th minute when Munster needed some kind of toe-hold on the scoreboard was a key moment and the London side kicked on and the game was up when Saracens' front-row manufactured another scrum penalty.

Munster's bench simply isn't close enough to being the requisite standard at this level of the game but they were a brave lot and they continued to fight. It is a matter of regret that Munster lost this match and, in the final analysis, were neither good enough on the day nor good enough on any other day. This Saracens side will take some stopping.

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