Thomond Park hasn’t exactly rocked of late, a point not lost on Edinburgh or Ospreys who seized their moment to bag rare wins in their respective Guinness Pro12 outings in Limerick last month.
European nights have always been different, however and despite the inconvenience of a 7.45pm kick off on a Friday night for the vast quantities of Munster followers living outside Limerick, the fans turned up in their droves and knew exactly what was expected of them on occasions such as this.
Saracens have pedigree and they also have previous, with 11 of their squad involved in this corresponding fixture two years ago. Like many before them, they knew what was coming but were powerless to deal with the unique set of challenges Munster reserve for European nights such as this.
A winning margin of 11 points was not only extremely satisfying against the Aviva Premiership high flyers but could also prove crucial, in that it denied Saracens the losing bonus point they would have set themselves as the minimum return from this contest.
When Saracens selected Owen Farrell at out half over Charlie Hodgson, the implications were clear. They were here to play no-frill rugby. There would be no loose passing or easy targets for Munster to smash. However given Munster’s defensive frailties in the opening half against Sale last weekend, that approach suited the cause just nicely.
It may have taken Saracens 23 minutes to shift the ball along their three-quarter line but their approach was having the desired effect. To have any chance of manufacturing a win as a visitor to Thomond Park, you have to survive the opening 20 minutes. Saracens achieved that with both sides scoreless after the first quarter.
They identified Ian Keatley for special attention by employing a suffocating rush defence with lightning line speed which offered him little or no space to operate. As a result, Munster were forced into kicking away an inordinate amount of possession, always a danger with Chris Ashton and David Strettle tracking back and Alex Goode appearing to have a tracking device on Keatley’s kicks.
The big plus from the opening half was the power of the Munster scrum with BJ Botha doing a number on the 25-year-old Saracens loose head Richard Barrington. French referee Jerome Garces satisfied himself as early as the second scrum that the Springbok had the measure of his opposite number, and Munster profited.
Botha doesn’t often get that luxury from the officials and was determined to make best use of his advantage. Saracens addressed the issue at half- time however replacing Barrington with the more experienced Welsh international Rhys Gill who was very fortunate to see yellow and not red for a dangerous tip tackle on CJ Stander.
That yellow card was all Munster needed. They smelled blood. By the time Gill returned to action, Munster had registered eight points with super sub Dave Kilcoyne delivering a try within 10 seconds of entering the fray. Kilcoyne was like a man possessed when sprung from the bench with his explosive ball carrying having a massive impact, offering Munster a huge lift.
Andrew Conway was another to come of age with his best outing in a Munster shirt. Denied what looked to me like a good try by the TMO, Conway was outstanding under the high ball and showed the quick feet and stepping ability that yielded nine tries in 10 Junior World Cup games for Ireland. This outing will bring him on in leaps and bounds.
After such a tight contest for so long, Munster even had the luxury of surviving an off-day from Keatley from the boot with just three successful kicks from his seven attempts. His tactical kicking and game management after the break was crucial in Munster getting that all important foothold in the Saracens 22. Once they achieved that the outcome was inevitable.
So after the opening two games of the revamped tournament, it is business as usual, with Munster very much alive in this most challenging of pools. With the pivotal back-to- back encounters against Clermont Auvergne next up in December, Anthony Foley has achieved all that was asked of him.
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