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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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Saracens crush Munster's European dream as van Graan's side bow out

The English side were too powerful, too clever and too controlling in Coventry.

Saracens 32

Munster 16

Murray Kinsella reports from the Ricoh Arena

THERE WAS A brief glimmer of a comeback in the second half but, in truth, Munster were well beaten by a better team as they fell to a seventh consecutive semi-final defeat in the Heineken Champions Cup. 

Saracens were worth their 16-point winning margin as they delivered a largely dominant showing in front of a disappointing crowd of 16,235 in Coventry – a crowd that mainly consisted of travelling Munster fans. 

Billy Vunipola celebrates his try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster’s defence was superb at times but Saracens’ power, handling skill, clever running lines, accurate kicking, relentless pressure and nous off the ball were simply too much to handle.  

As with the semi-final defeat to Saracens two years ago, Munster were unable to create genuine attacking chances – their only score coming from a scrum against the head close to the Sarries tryline.

Shorn of Joey Carbery and Keith Earls by injury, van Graan’s side lacked any attacking spark.

There is no doubting the application they brought to the tackle but with Saracens enjoying dominant shares of possession and territory, the Irish side were unable to cling on for eighty minutes.

A half-time scoreline that had Munster trailing 12-9 was actually a fine return from a half that had seen them concede four linebreaks and narrowly avoid letting Saracens in for a score, but they couldn’t resist thereafter.

With halfbacks Ben Spencer and Owen Farrell guiding them with composure and the powerhouses up front led by man of the match Billy Vunipola, booed throughout by Munster’s fans, van Graan’s team simply didn’t have the answers.

Saracens march into the final in Newcastle, where they will meet the winner of tomorrow’s clash between Leinster and Toulouse, with Mark McCall’s men looking like a decent bet to secure their third European title.

Alex Goode with Mike Haley Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Saracens’ opening play was thunderous, as they regained two consecutive Spencer box kicks over Munster fullback Mike Haley, the second of which brought a penalty as CJ Stander failed to roll away, allowing Farrell to fire over three points in the second minute.

Facing into the strong sun, Haley’s struggles continued as David Strettle – in as a late injury replacement for Sean Maitland – won a Farrell bomb back, although the Saracens playmaker was wide to the right with his subsequent drop-goal attempt.

Munster held on against the early pressure and were able to level when Mako Vunipola went off his feet at a defensive breakdown, out-half Tyler Bleyendaal stepping up to slot the penalty for 3-3.

Jack O’Donoghue and Chris Farrell set the physical tone for Munster with some huge tackles, before Andrew Conway diffused another Farrell bomb with a stunning overhead catch and mark close to his own tryline. 

But the aerial bombardment continued and yielded another penalty for Sarries, with Farrell emptying Haley in the same split second as one of his feet landed after fielding a Spencer box, the Munster fullback holding on as Liam Williams jackaled.

Farrell pushed his side 6-3 in front off the tee and extended the lead in the 27th minute after Munster were caught offside, only moments after they required a try-saving tackle from Darren Sweetnam on Strettle wide on their left.

Conor Murray watches his penalty kick go over Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The half-hour mark finally brought some respite for Munster as they strung together some promising attacking phases before Maro Itoje went off his feet and allowed Bleyendaal to make it 9-6.

With the brilliant Munster defence then forcing a knock-on from Mako Vunipola and Williams knocking-on a Haley kick for Itoje to get pinged in an offside position ahead of him, Conor Murray took over from the tee to hammer over a remarkable 47-metre shot at goal.

It appeared that Munster would somehow head into the break level but two frustrating penalties against Murray for blocking and captain O’Mahony for a deliberate knock-on left Farrell in position to successfully make it 12-9 with the clock in the red.

It was clear, however, that Munster needed to create attacking pressure on Saracens early in the second half. 

Instead, they were forced onto the defensive once again and finally they cracked on the 22nd phase of a punishing Saracens passage that featured a clever Farrell offload before Alex Goode’s wonderful skip pass sent Titi Lamositele bursting up the left.

From the recycle, a clever running line from Williams close in to the ruck lured Haley into biting in and Spencer’s pass instead found flanker Michael Rhodes, who burst through on the inside of John Ryan to score, Farrell converting.

Mike Rhodes scores his sides opening try despite Andrew Conway Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A tough afternoon for Haley continued as he knocked-on a scrambled offload by Murray, Saracens winning a penalty at the resulting scrum that saw Farrell extend them out to a 22-9 advantage.

The out-half added another three in the 54th minute as more pressure resulted in Niall Scannell using his hands in a defensive ruck, Munster left facing a daunting 25-9 deficit.

But with van Graan springing his bench into action, the Irish province fought back into the contest, going close from a five-metre lineout only for centre Farrell to be held up in a choke tackle just in front of the Sarries tryline.

It looked like a missed opportunity, but Munster managed to turn it into a try-scoring opportunity as Jack O’Donoghue cleverly got a foot to the ball at the base of the Sarries scrum, knocking it loose for Murray to scoop off the ground.

The scrum-half swiftly passed to his right, where Scannell fed Farrell for a beautiful catch-pass to Sweetnam, the Munster wing standing up Goode and bursting to his outside to cross for a try.

JJ Hanrahan, only on the pitch for 10 minutes after replacing Bleyendaal, slotted a superb conversion from wide on the right to bring the scoreline to 25-16.

Darren Sweetnam celebrates his try with Andrew Conway Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Tadhg Beirne was harshly penalised for what looked like a legal turnover in the 66th minute, though it seemed rather just that Farrell erred from the tee for the first time, leaving Saracens nine points to the good.

And the Munster revival was shortlived as Saracens finished over the top of them, breaks from Williams and Strettle setting them into another powerful passage of phase play that ended with Billy Vunipola reaching out to score.

The visiting fans roundly booed him again but the Saracens number eight had the last laugh in being named man of the match as Munster bowed out of the competition. 

Saracens scorers:

Tries: Michael Rhodes, Billy Vunipola

Conversions: Owen Farrell [2 from 2]

Penalties: Owen Farrell [6 from 7]

Munster scorers:

Tries: Darren Sweetnam

Conversions: JJ Hanrahan [1 from 1] 

Penalties: Tyler Bleyendaal [2 from 2], Conor Murray [1 from 1]

SARACENS: Alex Goode; David Strettle (Alex Lewington ’74), Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (captain) (Nick Tompkins ‘HT), Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer (Richard Wigglesworth ’74); Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington ’63), Jamie George (Joe Gray ’74), Titi Lamositele (Vincent Koch ’59 (yellow card ’77)); Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Mike Rhodes (Schalk Burger ’74), Jackson Wray (Will Skelton ’59), Billy Vunipola.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley (Dan Goggin ’51); Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Darren Sweetnam; Tyler Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan ’54), Conor Murray (Alby Mathewson ’74); Dave Kilcoyne (Jeremy Loughman ’61), Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’67), John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’51); Jean Kleyn (Billy Holland ’61), Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Jack O’Donoghue (Arno Botha ’67), CJ Stander.

Referee: Jerome Garces [FFR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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