Murray Kinsella reports from Allianz Park
MUNSTER’S EUROPEAN SEASON came to a definitive and depressing end at Allianz Park as Saracens excelled in a 33-10 victory.
Anthony Foley’s side delivered a hugely disappointing performance at the North London venue, finishing with a result that means they will fail to make the knock-out stages of the European competition for just the second time in 16 seasons.
A late try from Denis Hurley proved to be mere consolation and in truth the balance of the 80 minutes meant Munster probably deserved nothing more from the game. A home tie against Sale Sharks next weekend now becomes meaningless and Munster’s attention will turn to the Guinness Pro12.
While Munster will regret their own failings, Saracens will be buoyed by an energetic, intelligent and imposing display, reaffirming their pre-season status as strong contenders in this tournament.
A disastrous first-half left Foley’s men trailing 23-3, as a high error count fed right into the hands of the highly-accurate Saracens.
Munster’s knock-ons, missed tackles, kicks out on the full and poor reorganisation in defence constrated starkly with Saracens’ aggressive linespeed, crisp passing and variety in attack.
A poor decision from Duncan Williams in attempting to run the ball out of his own 22, very much going against the Munster game plan of kicking back at Sarries, led to the opening score from the boot of Owen Farrell.
Denis Hurley went off his feet in desperation as he attempted to retrieve the situation when Ashton caught Williams, allowing England international out-half Farrell to slot his first shot at goal.
Foley’s men looked to dominate territory through the kicking of Williams and Ian Keatley thereafter, but another error resulted in Saracens’ first try. Keatley looked for the corner, but his low kick rolled all the way dead and gave the home side a scrum on Munster’s 10-metre line.
Mako Vunipola and the front row powered forward, laying the foundation for an impressive Saracens attack that saw Chris Wyles finish in the corner. Farrell’s screen pass to Chris Ashton, after Andrew Conway bit in on the decoy-running Billy Vunipola, freed the ball for a three-on-one in the wide left channel, Alex Goode sending Wyles over.
Farrell’s conversion made it 10-0 with just 22 minutes gone, a lead he extended off the tee soon after, punishing Paul O’Connell’s excursion in the side of a Sarries maul.
Munster did register their first points of the tie on the 33-minute mark, Keatley slamming over a scrum penalty when referee Romain Poite got frustrated with Saracens’ early shove.
But the tide was far from turned, and yet another Munster mistake gave Saracens the platform. Felix Jones went off his feet at an attacking ruck near the halfway line, whereupon Richard Wigglersworth quick-tapped, released Marcelo Bosch and caught Munster napping.
Bosch sent Wyles bursting down the left wing, and when the American wing was hunted down, he dribbled a gorgeous grubber back inside for Ashton to fall on beyond the tryline. Again, Farrell was on target with his conversion.
Right on the stroke of half time, the mountain got that little steeper, as Farrell struck his third successful penalty to punish Dave Foley’s dragging down of a maul. That left Munster adrift at 23-3 and presumably facing a stinging word or two from head coach Foley.
That talking down looked to have found its mark as Munster burst out of the blocks when Simon Zebo cut Saracens open, running 30 metres into their 22 after busting the tackle of Petrus Du Plessis.
Munster hammered at the Sarries tryline, but Mako Vunipola came up with a superb turnover penalty, shrugging off the desperate rucking effort of O’Connell.
The Ireland captain’s out-of-sorts showing continued with a knock-on soon after, one which led to a lengthy spell of Saracens territory in the Munster half. Billy Vunipola produced one big break, while the maul and then the scrum went close.
Munster clung on and clung on until James Cronin was penalised at the scrum and Farrell kicked another penalty for a 26-3 lead. Munster’s discipline was falling apart at this stage, and scrum-half Williams got on Poite’s bad side on a number of occasions.
Farrell had his first miss off the tee when Williams came offside, but yet another handling error from Munster, this time between O’Connell and replacement Eusebio Guiñazú, put Munster immediately back under pressure.
Cronin attempted to rescue the situation, but Poite finally lost patience and sent the loosehead to the sin bin for a ruck infringement. Heading towards the final 13 minutes, Saracens went to the corner looking for another try, although they spilled their line-out.
That allowed Simon Zebo to burst upfield and draw a penalty for Billy Vunipola’s late tackle, although there was a brief interlude as Poite checked on potential foul play after Peter O’Mahony and Jacques Burger clashed.
The French match official saw nothing amiss and Munster kicked to touch, then played a clever line out move to send O’Mahony bursting through midfield and offloading to Hurley to charge to within metres of Sarries’ tryline.
Two short phases to the left followed, before Williams sent Hurley crashing over to the left of the posts to provide a glimpse of hope. Keatley’s conversion drew Munster back to 26-10.
But another late flurry from Saracens finished Munster off.
With Poite rolling on the ground in pain after taking an accidental knock off the ball, Ashton scooted over on the right untouched and got the opportunity to rub salt in Munster’s wounds with his ‘Ash Splash’ celebration.
Farrell popped over the conversion for a handsome 33-10 advantage heading into the closing minutes, one that was richly deserved and impossible to argue with.
Tries: Chris Wyles, Chris Ashton 
Conversions: Owen Farrell [3 from 3]
Penalties: Owen Farrell [4 from 5]
Tries: Denis Hurley
Conversions: Ian Keatley [1 from 1]
Penalties: Ian Keatley [1 from 1]
SARACENS: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch (Ben Ransom ’75), Brad Barritt (Charlie Hodgson ’65), Chris Wyles; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth (Neil de Kock ’65); Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington ’67), Jamie George (Brett Sharman ’73), Petrus Du Plessis (James Johnston ’67); Jim Hamilton (Maro Itoje ’75), Alistair Hargreaves (capt.); Kelly Brown (Ernst Joubert ’67), Jacques Burger, Billy Vunipola.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard (Keith Earls ’48), Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo (Ronan O’Mahony ’75); Ian Keatley (JJ Hanrahan ’75), Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Duncan Casey (Eusebio Guiñazú ’62), BJ Botha (Stephen Archer ’59); Dave Foley (Billy Holland ’75), Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony (capt.), Tommy O’Donnell (John Ryan ’67, O’Donnell back ’73), CJ Stander (Dave O’Callaghan ’28).
Referee: Romain Poite.