As deserved and as necessary as it was in keeping European qualification hopes alive, there was plenty of food for thought to digest ahead of Sunday’s return fixture at Vicarage Road.
After an opening round defeat at Stade de France to Racing Metro, wins over Edinburgh and now Saracens mean Munster are back in business and joint top of the table at the halfway stage of the pool phase.
This Thomond Park win saw to that with a Munster performance of Test-level intensity that was industrious and committed but which will have left Saracens in no doubt they can turn things around back at their place given a good week’s work on the training ground. The challenge for Rob Penney and his staff will be to ensure Munster make similar advances because the head coach knows Saracens, on home turf in Watford, will come back stronger, wiser and more accurate than they proved in Limerick.
The attention may have fallen on place-kicker Owen Farrell’s poor return of three penalties from seven attempts, but, as Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall said, their problems were not behind the scrum but “in the foundations of our game”.
One such cornerstone that cracked under scrutiny from Munster was the Saracens lineout, hitherto perfect in Europe this season with 23 won out of 23. It was pertinent that their captain Steve Borthwick’s unit had also come into the game joint-top of the lineout steals category, sharing that honour with Munster, and it was the home side that put a dent in the 100% efficiency. In fact they reduced it, according to the official statistics, to 67%, and putting a severe dent into the platform their talented backs have so often thrived on this season.
Allied to Farrell’s wayward kicking, that sent the visitors a little out of kilter and gave Munster confidence to eke out the win in a compelling spectacle. It might not have been one for the purists and the lack of space meant there was no room for the more expansive natures in both sides to find an outlet. Instead, this was back to basics stuff from Munster, whose best chance of scoring a try came through a well-worked lineout move and a good line-break from Conor Murray that foundered in front of the posts when his pass went behind Simon Zebo, whose support running on the scrum-half’s right shoulder had deserved better reward.
This, then, was a win carved out of excellent defence, described by Penney as “heart and soul stuff” and the peerless kicking of Ronan O’Gara, who took every chance that came his way with five penalties from five attempts and came close to adding another three points with a drop goal attempt on the stroke of half-time. And one other factor — Munster beat not just Saracens but also the referee.
Pascal Gauzere had been drafted in during the week to replace the injured Romain Poite, a change that would have been welcomed by most Munster fans based on Monsieur Poite’s body of work in previous games involving their heroes. By half-time, as the Thomond Park faithful booed Gauzere off the field following a string of bizarre and bewildering decisions that bore no semblance of balance or consistency, the arrival of Poite for the second period would have been met with the welcome afforded long-lost siblings.
And had Farrell not left 12 points out there with his errant boot, Gauzere’s actions, particularly at scrum-time when he appeared to reffing only BJ Botha, could have proved even more costly.
As it was though, Farrell at least got something out of the evening for Sarries with his 78th minute penalty kick sailing between the posts to narrow the deficit to seven points and earn his side a bonus point you suspected they were more than happy with for a night’s work on the road. It denied Munster the chance to top the group outright with three games left in the campaign and Penney’s side can afford nothing less than victory in the return fixture.
MUNSTER: F Jones (C Laulala, 67); D Howlett – captain, K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo (I Keatley, 75); R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez, 66), M Sherry (D Varley, 66), BJ Botha; D Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan; Dave O’Callaghan (P Butler, 63), P O’Mahony, J Coughlan.
Yellow card: Donncha O’Callaghan 20-30th min.
Replacements not used: S Archer, B Holland, D Williams.
SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (D Strettle, 58), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 51); R Gill (M Vunipola, 51), S Brits (J Smit, 60), M Stevens; S Borthwick – captain, M Botha (G Kruis, 60); K Brown, W Fraser (M Vunipola, 22-30; A Saull, 65) , E Joubert.
Yellow card: Rhys Gill 20-30th min.
Replacements not used: P du Plessis, J Tomkins.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).