Monday 27 January 2020

Row a mere sideshow as Munster stare down the barrel

Saracens 15 Munster 6

Andrew Conway attempts to brush off Saracens’ Max Malins during their Heineken Champions Cup clash. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Andrew Conway attempts to brush off Saracens’ Max Malins during their Heineken Champions Cup clash. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When the red mist fades and the red faces recede, Munster will look back on Saturday evening's events in Barnet with a lot of regret.

In the immediate aftermath, the row between their doctor and Jamie George dominated the agenda; as did CJ Stander's decision to go for the corner when a kick at goal might have earned them a key bonus point.

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EPCR will investigate an incident that saw Munster's head of medical Dr Jamie Kearns kick off a 30-man scuffle on the Allianz Park sidelines.

It is understood he responded to George kicking a ball at Niall Scannell by calling him "a fat p****", sparking the row.

Dr Kearns apologised to both George and Saracens' director of rugby, Mark McCall, after the game.

That process will take its course, but Munster's review will centre on how they went toe to toe with the European champions on their own patch - and did so much right despite losing four key players to injury - but let the game slip from their grasp.

Red mist: Nick Isiekwe of Saracens and Jack O’Donoghue of Munster find themselves at the centre of Saturday’s melee at Allianz Park. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Red mist: Nick Isiekwe of Saracens and Jack O’Donoghue of Munster find themselves at the centre of Saturday’s melee at Allianz Park. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Predictable

Already without Joey Carbery and Dave Kilcoyne, Munster suffered a series of blows as Peter O'Mahony hurt his groin in the warm-up, Tadhg Beirne suffered a serious ankle injury early on, John Ryan damaged his calf before half-time and Andrew Conway went off with a head injury early in the second.

And yet, when the row calmed and referee Pascal Gauzere penalised Owen Farrell for racing in from more than 10 metres away, JJ Hanrahan stood over a kick to make it 9-3.

He missed. Off the hook and enlivened by the festivities, Saracens moved up through the gears and crushed the resistance in impressive fashion.

A mass brawl breaks out between the teams. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
A mass brawl breaks out between the teams. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Munster's red wall couldn't hold, but it had been impressive for so long with Jean Kleyn and Chris Farrell superb and they kept the home side to a modest 15 points.

The problem came at the other end where Munster couldn't take their chances.

In the build-up, Munster head coach Johann van Graan said they'd need to be close to perfect and, while they were very good, they could have been even better.

Saracens rarely have to chase games, but having survived an early onslaught the visitors managed their way into the opposition '22 and had a lineout and two scrums midway through the first half.

They only came away with three points through Hanrahan, when during at least two rucks they kept things tight and ignored the passing option that would have set up a four-on-two situation.

They'll figure out whether Conor Murray should have spotted the chance or if the message didn't get to the scrum-half, but somewhere along the way the chance was missed.

There were other phases of possession, but nothing as glaring as this one. Even if Hanrahan had made it 9-3, they'd have forced the champions into an uncomfortable spot.

Then, when they fell two scores behind, they were handed a lifeline with a kickable penalty.

Three points would have put them in bonus-point territory, but CJ Stander went to the corner.

Citing momentum, the stand-in skipper said with the benefit of hindsight it was the probably the wrong call. Normally the masters of manoeuvring through the pool stages, Munster have poorly managed this year's tournament and find themselves in real danger of missing out on the last eight for the first time in four years.

With so many front-liners missing, Munster's squad isn't quite strong enough against the elite Test-level teams that Northampton coach Chris Boyd spoke about last week.

Munster are the best of the rest and can live in this company. When things go their way, they can beat the best but when you're consistently punching above your weight, you eventually get knocked out.

Saracens picked a strong, but not quite full-strength, team and were vulnerable. Had Munster won, they'd have one foot in the last eight regardless of what happened in Paris in four weeks' time.

Now, they need to win because they've opened the back door to the champions who have the Ospreys away and Racing at home to come.

According to McCall, the holders are only getting going.

"Their (Munster)'s was one of the best defensive performances I've seen here, but we made it too easy for them," McCall said. "We were predictable. There was another gear to go and we found that in the last 25 minutes. It's good because we've shown ourselves what we're capable of. We just do that more consistently now."

That's the danger.

Over in Paris next month, Munster must dance beneath the La Défense Arena lights with Simon Zebo, Finn Russell et al and come out the better of it. They feel they are improving, but whether it's enough is the question.

"I thought we defended really well. I thought we started the game pretty well. I thought we started the second half pretty well. It's something we targeted," said Van Graan.

"In the five minutes before half-time we as a group said that's when they're at their strongest and that's where we need to improve.

"So, yes, it's very disappointing when I sit here now but I guess in a few weeks, when you stand back, I believe there's improvement. You'd just like to finish the opportunities you get because you don't get them very often against a team like this.

"You've just got to look at their quality and what they've got available. I mean, even the guys that didn't play tonight. They're a very, very good side and they've got so much depth. That's the way the game goes.

"But look, we're a club that never makes an excuse. We won't make an excuse for this one. The players gave it all they got, we'll move on to next week."

SARACENS - M Malins; S Maitland, A Lozowski (D Taylor 60), N Tompkins, E Daly; O Farrell (capt), R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 53); M Vunipola (R Barrington 74), J George (T Woolstencroft 74), V Koch (J Ibuanokpe 74); J Kpoku (J Wray 59), G Kruis; N Isiekwe, B Earl, B Vunipola.

MUNSTER - M Haley; A Conway (D Goggin 53), C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (N McCarthy 74); J Cronin (L O'Connor 67), N Scannell (K O'Byrne 74), J Ryan (S Archer 24); J Kleyn (F Wycherley 68), B Hollland; T Beirne (T O'Donnell 11), J O'Donoghue, CJ Stander (capt).

Ref - P Gauzere (France)

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