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Munster left empty-handed as Saracens finish over the top in London

Johann van Graan’s side led heading into the final quarter but couldn’t cling on.

Saracens 15

Munster 6

MUNSTER WENT TOE to toe with Saracens for 60 minutes and traded blow for blow in an eye-wateringly physical encounter at Allianz Park but they were knocked over in the final quarter as the reigning Europeans delivered the crushing killer plays.

Johann van Graan’s side led 6-3 entering the closing 15 minutes but the influence of the returning Vunipola brothers told late on as number eight Billy brilliantly teed up Sean Maitland for a try and then loosehead Mako barrelled over for a second.

jean-kleyn-in-the-middle-of-a-scuffle-between-the-two-teams It was a hugely edgy contest in London. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In doing so, Saracens denied Munster even a losing bonus point on the road, when their gritty performance felt like it deserved something. 

The fact that the visitors had a late chance to kick at goal but instead opted to kick for touch and were turned over will rankle with them in the coming days. After a big effort, they leave London empty-handed.

Munster had to overcome serious injury setbacks as captain Peter O’Mahony was ruled out after pulling up with a groin injury in the warm-up, whil blindside Tadhg Beirne was carried off with a serious-looking ankle injury just 11 minutes in, and then tighthead John Ryan was forced off in the first half. Andrew Conway also departed with a head injury in the second 40.

Losing those four Ireland internationals didn’t help but Munster muscled up in a foul-tempered affair that featured an all-in bout of handbags when Saracens hooker Jamie George took exception to one of Munster’s medical team.

Van Graan’s side now must win away to Racing 92 in Paris in January, another daunting challenge, with their knock-out stage hopes looking in real trouble.

There was familiar frustration here in not being able to break down the Saracens defence and the failure to even notch a losing bonus point, after the English side claimed one in Thomond Park, will leave them with real regrets. 

Munster will never give up in Europe but they now need something big in Paris on Sunday 12 January. 

tadhg-beirne-has-to-leave-the-field-due-to-a-knee-injury Tadhg Beirne was stretchered off in the first half. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The first half was a tight and brutally physical affair with neither defence cracking as Owen Farrell and JJ Hanrahan’s penalties left the game poised at 3-3 at the break.

That scoreline belied an enjoyable half of rugby, with the two excellent defences very much on top. Saracens enjoyed the better of the opening quarter, Farrell punishing Munster for edging offside just after defending a five-metre maul.

But the English side couldn’t cap a big period of pressure nearing the 20-minute mark, even after Munster were served warning for their concession of penalties inside their 22, and a superb maul turnover from specialist Jack O’Donoghue – starting in place of O’Mahony, with CJ Stander taking the captaincy – lifted the siege.

A breakdown turnover penalty earned by loosehead James Cronin finally allowed Munster to occupy Sarries territory but they couldn’t make it that final metre over the tryline despite extended pressure that included Andrew Conway almost scoring wide on the right after a Rory Scannell skip pass. The visitors had to settle for Hanrahan’s three points of the tee in the 25th minute.

McCall’s men responded well to that Munster score and fullback Max Malins beat Conway wide on the left to threaten. He was halted metres short of the tryline and just as Saracens seemed poised to finally break the resistance, Keith Earls cleverly intervened.

Referee Pascal Gaüzère required a TMO review to be sure there was no foul play but the replays showed that Earls grabbed Sarries scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth’s arm after he had lifted the ball from the ruck, forcing a knock-on.

cj-stander-and-chris-cloete-compete-for-the-ball-with-billy-vunipola Munster wrap up Billy Vunipola. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Farrell had an uncharacteristic miss when he kicked at goal minutes later after Conor Murray was pinged for a high tackle on Nick Isiekwe and Saracens’ last prime chance in the half was left untaken as left wing Elliot Daly misjudged a linekick that would have given them a five-metre maul opportunity, instead kicking the ball dead.

Munster were able to nudge in front in the opening minutes of the second half as Sarries openside Ben Earl gave up a silly penalty for a late tackle on Earls after the Munster wing had chipped ahead.

Hanrahan, having put Earls in space with a wide pass, slotted the three points from the tee for a 6-3 Munster lead. 

What had been an edgy encounter exploited in the 50th minute as Earls was tackled into touch and Saracens hooker George took issue with one of the Munster medics, sparking an extended bout of push-and-shove that involved virtually every player and ended with Gaüzère awarding Munster a penalty. 

Hanrahan couldn’t nail the very kickable chance, missing to the left of the posts, but the contest moved onto another level with even more bite. Jean Kleyn stole a Saracens lineout on Munster’s 22, but then the home side won a big choke tackle turnover.

The increasingly influential Kleyn choke tackled opposite number Joel Kpoku down in the Munster 22 minutes later as the tit-for-tat big plays continued amidst a febrile atmosphere.

jean-kleyn-and-george-kruis-in-a-maul It was a ferocious contest at Allianz Park. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Saracens flanker Isiekwe was next to step up with a lineout steal inside the Munster 22 to initiate a dangerous passage that provided them with a penalty under the posts. Rather than leveling proceedings, Sarries opted to scrum down. 

Billy Vunipola’s surge off the base brought another penalty for offside and again they decided to scrum, winning a third penalty at the set-piece.  

And finally, in the 65th minute, Munster’s defence yielded. It was a sublime bit of number eight play from Vunipola that broke down the door, as he burst right from the scrum, fended O’Donoghue, drew Hanrahan, Scannell and Earls into the tackle and then beautifully offloaded one-handed over the top to Sean Maitland to finish in the right corner.

Farrell missed the conversion, meaning Sarries led only 8-6 but they added their second try to open up some breathing space with eight minutes remaining, an excellent passage of flowing attack ending with Mako Vunipola picking and bursting over, aided by George Kruis’ latch.

Farrell was able to convert from underneath the posts and then Munster opted against kicking a penalty to bring them back within seven points, instead going to touch but getting turned over in the resulting maul.

And Saracens won another big turnover on Munster’s very final attack as Earls was pinged for holding on, meaning the southern province departed heavily dispirited.

Saracens scorers:

TriesSean Maitland, Mako Vunipola

ConversionsOwen Farrell [1 from 2]

PenaltiesOwen Farrell [1 from 2]

Munster scorers: 

PenaltiesJJ Hanrahan [2 from 3]

SARACENS: Max Malins; Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski (Duncan Taylor ’60), Nick Tompkins (Manu Vunipola ’79), Elliot Daly; Owen Farrell (captain), Richard Wigglesworth (Ben Spencer ’53); Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington), Jamie George (Tom Woolstencroft ’74), Vincent Koch (Josh Ibuanokpe ’73); Joel Kpoku (Jackson Wray ’59), George Kruis; Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola (Calum Clark ’73).

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway (Dan Goggin ’53), Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray (Nick McCarthy ’74); James Cronin (Liam O’Connor ’67), Niall Scannell (Kevin O’Byrne ’73), John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’25); Jean Kleyn (Fineen Wycherley ’67), Billy Holland; Tadhg Beirne (Tommy O’Donnell ’11 (Chris Cloete ’73)), Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander (captain). 

Referee: Pascal Gaüzère [France]. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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