DONAL LENIHAN: Smart Sarries stifle Munster

You could have substituted South African World Cup-winning captain John Smit’s comments after last week’s trip to Thomond Park with those expressed by his illustrious Springbok predecessor Francois Pienaar all of 13 seasons ago.

Smit and his hooking colleague Schalk Brits were blown away with the atmosphere in Limerick and learned a valuable lesson about the link between those on the field, and those supporting them.

Saracens have been searching for an identity since Munster made that significant Heineken Cup breakthrough with a stunning 34-35 win here at Vicarage Road in 1999. Back then, the Saracens matchday experience incorporated Pom Pom girls, a remote controlled model car that brought the kicking tee on for French out half Thierry Lacroix and a support base who sought identity by wearing Fez hats.

After the return trip to Thomond Park when Munster repeated the dose in another 31-30 classic, Pienaar finally got the message when the appreciative home crowd clapped his star studded team off the pitch, showing a clear appreciation of their efforts. Support must come from the heart. It has to mean something to the people standing on the terraces and cannot be manufactured. Pienaar stood in awe and reciprocated by clapping the Munster supporters, who were at the early stages of carving their own niche on the European stage.

Thirteen years on and we find ourselves back in the dilapidated surrounds of Watford Football Club with Saracens still in search of a home and an identity. Already this season, they have hosted home fixtures in Twickenham, Wembley, Bedford, Brussels, Milton Keynes and on three previous occasions, here at Vicarage Road.

They even contemplated bringing this game to the joint home of the NFL’s Giants and the Jets in New York only for the hosts to refuse to drill holes in the artificial turf for the goalposts.

After this result, you wish they had. Next February Saracens finally move into an impressive new, purpose- built, stadium at Barnet, North London, and not a minute before time.

Back in 1999, Munster entered the last few minutes of the contest six points in arrears only for Jeremy Staunton to score a try with Ronan O’Gara’s conversion securing a famous win. History repeated itself yesterday with the same margin of arrears facing Munster as the clock ticked towards the 80-minute mark but when the need was greatest, their scrum let them down.

The final penalty awarded by referee Jerome Garces was marginal as Munster appeared to get the drive on in the scrum but in another one of those tight calls, the decision went the other way.

If Munster had reason to be unhappy with the referee last week, they will have no cause for complaint on that front this time. Locked at 10-10 at the break, Munster were unable to produce any semblance of quality possession as the Saracens front five got a stranglehold on the game. The fact that the weather also deteriorated at that stage aided Saracens’ cause, with the hosts happy to play the territorial game despite the quality of the Munster back three. It didn’t help to lose Felix Jones again to injury but Simon Zebo stepped in at full back and gave an exhibition of fielding in the most difficult of conditions. Young Luke O’Dea, who was playing in the AIL for Shannon a few weeks ago, also did extremely well despite lining up opposite Chris Ashton.

A big problem for Munster was the fact that the soccer pitch here is short eight metres in length and six metres in width on a regulation rugby field. Given the type of game that Rob Penney has been promoting all season, with the emphasis on creating width, that was a huge disadvantage. In those circumstances, it was obvious that this game would be won or lost in the tight exchanges.

The loss of Dave Kilcoyne to a stomach bug before the game was another blow for the visitors and overall Saracens set out to stifle Munster with their aggressive, off-the-line defence creating all kinds of problems. Space was at a premium on a claustrophobic pitch with the receiver always under pressure.

Munster were equally proficient when it came to playing the pressure game and got the ultimate reward when James Downey intercepted before the break to put his inspirational captain Doug Howlett in at the corner.Coming so soon after David Strettle’s opening five pointer it offered a huge psychological boost.

The trouble with these back-to-back games is the sides know every little nuance the opposition has to offer and it often comes down to which side learned more from the opening tie, and of even more importance, have the capacity to implement change. Saracens seemed to edge matters on that front this week especially at the set piece, where their lineout produced a 100% return after coughing up six in Thomond Park.

While the young guns continued to lead the way with Zebo, Mike Sherry, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray all having big games, the veterans of the piece kept Munster competitive and within inches of winning the game at the death. Howlett was inspirational in chasing kicks, Donncha O’Callaghan had a massive game and Ronan O’Gara was the consummate footballer, with and without the ball.

Time and again, when Munster turned over possession, O’Gara read the intentions of Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, knew instinctively what they were going to do and played a sweeper’s role in cleaning up the mess.

On so many occasions, he has rescued Munster at the death but this time he saw a drop goal and a late penalty test the quality of the paint work on the posts. It was that close but just wasn’t to be.

Just like Leinster on Saturday, we will have to wait and see if that losing bonus point is of any value come the end of January, as both Irish provinces seem now destined to be chasing one of the two best runners-up slots at best. Racing Metro’s win over Edinburgh also keeps them firmly in the driving seat and on a miserable weekend for the Irish in Europe, Ulster, despite that surprise defeat to Northampton on Saturday night, remain the best placed of the provinces to make the quarters.

Last weekend, I ventured to suggest that there was a strong possibility that all the Irish sides could lose in Europe.

If a return of three from four in the first of the back-to-back series had us in raptures, reality has come back to bite on a weekend of action that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.


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