Donal Lenihan: Leinster beware: Saracens may be down but they’re far from out

On an explosive Saturday that saw Saracens relegated from the Gallagher Premiership on the eve of a must-win Champions Cup pool game against Racing 92, Munster took their exit from this season’s competition without firing a shot.

Donal Lenihan: Leinster beware: Saracens may be down but they’re far from out

On an explosive Saturday that saw Saracens relegated from the Gallagher Premiership on the eve of a must-win Champions Cup pool game against Racing 92, Munster took their exit from this season’s competition without firing a shot.

As expected, Leinster and Ulster took their place in the last eight, even if both were required to work a lot harder than anticipated against a highly competitive pairing in Benetton and Bath. Leinster’s only bumps on the road this season have, rather surprisingly, occurred away from home against Italian opposition.

Not only does that see Leinster in another financially lucrative home quarter-final but also offers them a great chance of hosting a semi-final back in Dublin.

But that’s the end of the good news. Leinster’s reward, if you could call it that, for finishing top: A repeat of last season’s final against a Saracens side who just refuse to go away.

For the second weekend in a row Saracens, despite being rocked by confirmation they will spend next season playing outside the Premiership, still found the resilience to survive having a man sent off. To overturn a seven-point deficit playing with 14 men for the entire second half says everything about their mental toughness.

The fact they achieved it against a side with the quality of Racing 92 shows they are not prepared to give up their European crown without one hell of a fight. Their quarter-final against Leinster will be monumental and, with twice as many players as Saracens likely to be involved on Six Nations duty, Leinster’s preparation for that game will be clearly compromised.

After a tumultuous period on and off the field, new head coach Dan McFarland has led Ulster into successive quarter-finals in Europe. Despite winning five of their six pool games Ulster, like Leinster, face formidable opposition in four-time champions Toulouse, who haven’t won the Champions Cup for a decade. On the 25th anniversary of winning the inaugural tournament, they will be keen to change that.

Despite that, on the basis of their performance against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium at the same stage last season, when — but for a failure of Jacob Stockdale to ground the ball in the act of scoring a try — they might have shocked their hosts, McFarland’s men will quietly fancy their chances. Few outside their camp will be as optimistic.

Meanwhile, Munster find themselves on the outside looking in, Ireland’s third-ranked province behind Leinster and Ulster. Their final Pool 4 game against Ospreys was rendered meaningless after Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors recorded superb bonus-point wins on the road over Lyon and Sale Sharks, respectively, on Saturday.

Miracles are beyond Munster these days. At least when they defeated Gloucester in that match in Thomond Park back in 2003 to make the quarter-finals against the odds, destiny was in their own hands. On this occasion, there was far too many permutations required to make Munster’s passage to a 17th quarter-final in 22 seasons possible.

For that Munster have nobody to blame but themselves. The failure to beat Racing in Limerick, coupled with leaving a losing bonus behind against Saracens at Allianz Park, proved too much in the end. Those three points could well have seen them advance at the expense of Saracens.

In some respects, there’s an element of relief attached to that as the reward for such an outcome would have been a meeting with Leinster in the last eight. Current evidence suggests that would not go Munster’s way.

Such has been Munster’s fortune of late, the last thing they needed was another injury to an experienced second row when Jean Kleyn followed Tadhg Beirne to the sick bay with a neck injury after the loss to Racing 92 in Paris.

At least Fineen Wycherley was passed fit after his recent head injury assessment. It didn’t help preparations that Billy Holland’s participation was compromised up to kick off having rolled his ankle during lineout practice on Friday.

In the circumstances, against the most grizzled unit in the Ospreys team in Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies, Holland’s experience and availability was vital. The injuries mounted elsewhere, however, when Chris Farrell was forced out before kick-off due to a knee injury to be replaced by Sam Arnold and Andrew Conway failed a head injury assessment after only 11 minutes of action. With Keith Earls ruled out earlier in the week, Munster’s attacking resources were depleted.

It’s probably representative of the way Johann van Graan’s luck is going at the moment that Ospreys chose this game to select their strongest combination of the season with the majority of their Welsh internationals back in harness, including a marauding back row with a pair of British and Irish Lions in Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric, supported by Welsh international No8 Dan Baker to complement their bustling second row.

Van Graan would be better off not wasting any money on lottery tickets any time soon.

In the circumstances, it was no surprise we were served with a pretty average game, played in a subdued atmosphere where even the ‘Fields of Athenry’ failed to achieve any traction. Despite starting slowly, Munster finally emerged with a win that will hardly set pulses racing. The final result, a bonus-point win, was just about the only thing of note to take from what has proved an underwhelming campaign.

Six points in arrears after the opening quarter, a period when Munster normally seek to pummel the opposition in order to remind them where they are, amounted to just about the worst possible start. It didn’t help matters that Munster’s scrum was under pressure and their discipline poor.

Munster badly needed a spark and a well-worked try from CJ Stander, set up by a superb line and carry by Arnold, who took the opportunity to remind the Munster coaches of what he is capable of, ignited the home challenge. A second try within minutes by Stephen Archer provided another boost before the break.

Perhaps a glimpse into the future also with the four-try bonus-point score delivered by the dynamic Craig Casey, scoring his first Champions Cup five-pointer within a minute of replacing Conor Murray after he required a head injury assessment — only for Casey to be forced off within minutes after his introduction for a similar examination.

Thankfully he was cleared to return to action, as was Murray, who who enjoyed his best performance in a Munster shirt all season in a timely reminder to Andy Farrell of what he is capable of before his Ireland squad assembles for the Six Nations.

Given the atrocious form of the Ospreys of late — one win across 16 competitive outings in the Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup all season — Munster won’t waste too much time celebrating this victory.

Munster’s focus must now switch immediately towards topping Conference B in the Guinness PRO 14 and improving their chances of a decent draw in Europe next season. For Leinster and Ulster, their European journey continues with two mouthwatering quarter-finals to look forward to on the first weekend in April.

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