A long way back to the top for Munster

As if things weren’t bad enough, Saracens finished on a high with their third try of the day accompanied by that despicable Chris Ashton swan dive.

A long way back to the top for Munster

It was the ultimate insult on a day when Munster’s limitations were exposed to the full.

For the Munster faithful there will be no need for calculators, no talk of points differential or number of tries required heading into round six of the Champions Cup next weekend.

Munster’s goose is already cooked.

There has been a seismic shift on the European club front in recent years and the Irish provinces are beginning to feel the impact. The days when Irish teams dominated to the extent that Munster and Leinster accounted for five Heineken Cups in seven seasons are well and truly over.

We are fast approaching the stage where Leinster, with the backing of a massive population base and a vibrant schools feeder system, will remain as the only credible Irish alternative to the ever- increasing financial clout available to our English and French counterparts. The sooner we realise it the better and with our limited playing base, it is time our resources are utilised to the maximum benefit of all four provinces.

Otherwise we are consigned to a slow death.

While Leinster accounted for Castres with the consummate ease, anticipated going into this crucial round of games, Munster and Ulster were left harbouring a distinct feeling of inadequacy.

It is a long time since Munster looked a beaten side before half-time but Ashton’s first try four minutes before the break signalled the inevitable.

Saracens have the capacity to destroy teams when all the elements of their game come together — remember their 46-6 demolition of Clermont Auvergne in last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final?

Munster’s game is all about power and physicality at the breakdown. When they are matched in that department, they struggle. When they are beaten as comprehensively as in the opening half in north London on Saturday, there is simply no way back.

Having reached Heineken Cup semi-finals in the last two seasons, albeit from more manageable pools, under the direction of the under-appreciated Rob Penney, it is inevitable that the new regime will feel the pressure now.

A degree of perspective is required here however.

When penning my verdicts on this season’s new competition back in October, I stated: “If Anthony Foley masterminds a quarter-final slot from this pool, his coaching credentials will have taken a massive leap. The odds are stacked against Munster but, then again, what else is new?”

A pool with three of last seasons semi-finalists always looked like proving a step too far.

That doesn’t excuse how inept Munster were on Saturday. Even looking back to the opening day escape in Manchester against Sale Sharks, when Ian Keatley delivered that winning drop goal at the death, Munster were under pressure from the outset. Losing to Clermont Auvergne in Thomond Park made the task even more challenging.

The problem with Munster now is they have become far too predictable and offer little or no credible threat in attack. When the pressure comes on and when teams succeed in reducing the pace of their recycles at the breakdown, Munster find it very difficult to generate momentum.

Saracens packed their back row with size and power, dispensing with an open side in the knowledge that Munster would attack the narrow channels first. In Kelly Brown, Billy Vunapola and Jacques Burger they had three massive specimens whose job without the ball was to stop Munster getting over the gain line. They succeeded admirably.

Let us have no talk either of Roman Poite and a penalty count of 13 to 4 against Munster. Some of those were as a direct consequence of the pressure Saracens managed to exert from the outset, others were of the cheap variety for diving recklessly over the top, leaving the referee with no option.

Saracens were significantly smarter in their approach than when the sides met in Limerick in round two, and the English outfit learned from their errors.

While they targeted the breakdown for special attention, it was also clear they made their assault on Munster’s scrum a priority. In the certain knowledge that Poite would side with the team that chiselled out the early advantage in that key phase, Saracens retained possession at the feet of the explosive Billy Vunipola and constantly went for the second drive.

While the psychological damage inflicted on a retreating scrum was bad enough, the resultant penalties enabled the impressive Owen Farrell to pin Munster back in their own 22 for long periods.

The most frightening statistic to emerge about Saracens new 4G pitch before the game is that they have been averaging 35 points a match on it since it was installed. While anticipating that Munster would be under intense pressure from the off in this one, their defence has been so well organised this season, it was difficult to imagine Saracens maintaining that kind of scoring average.

By half-time, however, that target was well within their compass, with 23 points and two tries on the board. Munster were facing into an abyss.

The fact that they somehow restricted their hosts to 10 points in the second half, despite being under siege, served to highlight just why Saracens have struggled to close out highly promising seasons with silverware.

In fact their failure to bag a four-try bonus point may yet cost them a place in the last eight.

It also said everything we already know about Munster’s refusal to throw in the towel, even in the most demanding of circumstances.

Munster were in trouble from the off in this one and it didn’t help their cause when CJ Stander rolled his ankle are only 17 minutes attempting to tackle the irrepressible Vunipola. Munster’s principal ball carrier was withdrawn 10 minutes later and thereafter that monstrous Saracens back row proved impossible to contain.

It didn’t help the cause that Robin Copeland was absent from bench duty due to injury and that Standers replacement Dave O’Callaghan has had precious little competitive rugby this season due to injury.

You often hear talk of teams having to earn the right to go wide when looking to shift play into the wider channels early in a game. Saracens were very conscious of that and keen to make sure they offered Munster no easy targets in midfield.

The opening 20 minutes produced a tactical masterclass from the hosts, inflicting the type of sustained pressure on Munster in that key period that Munster normally reserve for visitors to Thomond Park.

No surprise that it had the same effect. Munster were distinctly second best in his contest and with the ever increasing likelihood that the bigger clubs in France and England will be fortified even further by top quality imports from the southern hemisphere after the World Cup, things are set to get worse unless we get a hand on some of that talent ourselves.

Munster could certainly do with an influx of star quality to supplement a very decent bunch of homegrown players. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear like happening any time soon.

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