Saracens 33 Munster 10
Saracens took a giant stride towards the European Champions Cup quarter-finals by flooring Irish heavyweights Munster at Allianz Park.
Last year’s European runners-up moved top of Pool One by delivering arguably their most complete performance of the season, cruising home 33-10.
Wings Chris Wyles and Chris Ashton scored first-half tries, before Ashton added a second touchdown after the break, while Owen Farrell reminded England head coach Stuart Lancaster of his quality prior to next week’s RBS 6 Nations squad announcement by kicking four penalties and three conversions for an 18-point haul.
French giants Clermont Auvergne remain favourites to win the group – they host Saracens on Sunday week – but it is probable that one of three best runners-up spots in terms of last-eight qualification will be filled by either club.
Twice European champions Munster, though, are staring at pool-stage elimination - barring a mathematical miracle – for only a second time in the last 17 seasons, even if they defeat Thomond Park visitors Sale Sharks in bonus-point fashion next weekend.
Centre Denis Hurley’s late try, plus an Ian Keatley conversion and penalty, could not mask Munster deficiencies, as Saracens overpowered them up front and won an overwhelming majority of midfield collisions.
And while Munster’s European fate looks sealed, Saracens appear well equipped to make another assault on silverware, even if they did not collect a bonus point their dominance deserved.
Saracens were boosted by the return of England centre Brad Barritt for his first appearance since suffering a calf muscle injury on Test duty in late November, while skipper Alistair Hargreaves recovered from a knock to pack down alongside second-row partner Jim Hamilton.
But Saracens suffered a late blow when prolific try-scoring wing David Strettle was ruled out with back trouble, so Wyles deputised and Ben Ransom featured on the bench.
And Munster’s Ireland international scrum-half Conor Murray missed out due to a neck problem just three weeks before this season’s Six Nations kick-off, which meant a start for Duncan Williams.
Saracens made the early running, setting up camp inside Munster’s 22 with Ashton prominent, and they deservedly took a ninth-minute lead through an angled Farrell penalty.
Munster struggled to handle a powerful Saracens scrum, and it was no surprise when that imposing set-piece platform provided the foundation for an opening try midway through the first half.
Once again, Saracens found themselves within striking distance of Munster’s line, and they made it count as scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth fired possession wide to Farrell, and three passes later via Ashton and full-back Alex Goode, Wyles crossed unopposed.
It was simple rugby executed in majestic fashion by Saracens, and Farrell’s conversion gave the home side a 10-0 lead that their territorial control warranted.
And Munster’s early troubles showed no sign of abating as their often-influential number eight CJ Stander limped off 12 minutes before half-time, before a second Farrell penalty put Saracens 13 points clear, with Munster offering little to suggest they would recover from such a deficit.
A Keatley penalty opened Munster’s account as the interval approached, and it sparked a temporary spell of dominance before Saracens were handed back the initiative when the visitors spilled possession in midfield.
Munster then conceded a penalty on halfway, and Saracens prospered after opting to run the ball back, with Wyles sending a brilliant kick behind the Irish side’s defence before Ashton reacted quickest to touch down.
Farrell’s conversion made it 20-3, and Munster could have no complaints, appearing clueless when faced by a heady combination of Saracens’ power game and silky skills with ball in hand.
Farrell could not miss off the tee either, completing his penalty hat-trick with the final kick of a one-sided opening 40 minutes as Munster found themselves with a mountain to climb at 20 points adrift.
They managed to keep Saracens quiet for much of the third quarter, but a fourth Farrell penalty took the home side further ahead before Munster again were forced into reverse gear, defending frantically inside their 22.
Munster were a more cohesive unit in the second period, but Saracens had long since inflicted telling damage as visiting prop James Cronin was sin-binned by referee Romain Poite for tackling a player off the ball.
Saracens flanker Jacques Burger and Munster skipper Peter O’Mahony then got involved in a touchline skirmish, and although Poite took no action, it fired the visitors into action and Hurley touched down near the posts 10 minutes from time, with Keatley converting.
Inevitably, though, Saracens had the final word in a game that they dominated when the outstanding Ashton led Munster’s defence a merry dance by touching down and completing a richly impressive afternoon’s work.