Friday 24 May 2019

Seventh straight European semi-final defeat for Munster as ruthless Saracens blow van Graan's men away

Munster's Tadhg Beirne looks gutted following the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match against Saracens. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Munster's Tadhg Beirne looks gutted following the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match against Saracens. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Munster suffered another semi-final defeat in Europe - their seventh on the bounce starting with the defeat by Leinster in 2009 - when they were well beaten (32-16) by Saracens in brilliant sunshine at Coventry's Ricoh Arena yesterday.

Trailing 12-9 at half-time, Munster were overpowered well before the finish by what was one of the great performances in the history of European competition. Saracens haven't had a stellar season in the Premiership, where they trail leaders Exeter by nine points, but they put everything together yesterday with an awesome display.

"There are no complaints from our side," Johann van Graan said afterwards. "The pressure from their side was intense. They've played some great rugby in the Premiership and in Europe and they've blown everyone away. But we'll be back - back in Europe next year, in the pool stages and hopefully in the play-offs. It's a competition we, as a club, love."

Munster struggled to cope given the relentless pressure exerted by the home side, pressure which was as intense in Munster's half as it was on the rare occasion they got close to the Saracens sticks.

"We played a lot of rugby in our half," captain Peter O'Mahony said. "They scored a lot of points in the first 20 minutes of the first half and then the first 20 of the second half and we struggled to stay with them. They probably stuck to their game-plan. They're just very big men and they ran hard. And with Farrell and Goode pulling the strings, it's hard to know which side they're going. That 15 minutes (in the second half) just felt like wave after wave."

Owen Farrell was the architect of Saracens' semi-final victory, kicking 22 points, while Billy Vunipola and flanker Michael Rhodes touched down during a dominant second-half team performance.

Despite wing Darren Sweetnam's try, two Tyler Bleyendaal penalties, a long-range Conor Murray strike and JJ Hanrahan's conversion, Munster suffered yet another European semi-final defeat on their record 14th appearance in the competition's penultimate knockout stage.

Vunipola delivered an official man-of-the-match display, but he was booed most times he touched the ball. Vunipola received formal warnings last week after he showed support for Israel Folau on social media.

After yesterday's victory, Vunipola spoke about the support he received from his Saracens team-mates following a difficult week. "Behind closed doors I felt a lot of love, a lot of kindness shown to me," he said. "I am just very grateful to be part of this team. From my point of view, I believe in what I believe in. There was no intention to hurt anyone. I am just grateful to play."

This afternoon at the Aviva Stadium, defending champions Leinster take on Toulouse for the third time this season - with one win apiece from the games played at the pool stage.

Both sides have four tournament wins and in their drive for five France's most successful side will bring a behemoth pack of forwards. Moreover, they have already secured their place in the Top 14 play-offs after last weekend against Clermont. According to one of those giants, Richie Gray, their defence will need to be a bit tighter today.

"I think it is fair to say that, if we concede 44 points to Leinster we'll not likely be appearing in next month's final," he said. "We got out of jail and the feeling in the dressing room afterwards was one of relief. We were excited to still be at the top of the league but knew we would need to sharpen up this weekend."

Leinster will have captain Johnny Sexton back in harness - his first time in blue since the Pro14 tie against Munster over Christmas - with Rhys Ruddock selected ahead of Scott Fardy on the side of the scrum.

Sexton spent time last week with renowned kicking coach Dave Alred. The pair have worked together for most of Sexton's career and those extra sessions behind the scenes have helped get him back into a position where he believes he can rediscover his best form.

"He always comes over and when he is available I always take him, because he is brilliant," said Sexton yesterday. "He tries to make himself available for these type of games. Hopefully I get to keep working with him for the foreseeable future.

"I am happy to have got the issues sorted out with my leg. Of course it has been really frustrating. You never want to be injured. I suppose you have to take the positives. It was a chance for me to get my issues sorted out and fully resolved. It was probably a good time for me to get away and have a break and come back feeling refreshed.

A crowd of less than 40,000 is expected. Leinster drew virtually a full house of 51,700 for the quarter-final win over Ulster but a combination of factors - Easter Sunday, higher ticket prices (set by EPCR rather than Leinster) and, for some reason, the absence of tickets priced for schoolkids - is likely to keep the attendance around the 37,000 mark.

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