Munster undone by small margins

Saracens 19 Munster 13

Munster undone by small margins

In beating Munster yesterday to take control of Pool 1 with two games to go, Saracens bounced back just as they said they would following a chastening night at Thomond Park a week ago. Their lineout was back functioning at 100%, their scrum had some heft and guile that had been previously lacking and their restarts gave their own players some hope of winning the ball.

In short, Saracens got their act together when it mattered and that Munster still came so close to beating the English Premiership heavyweights will be even more frustrating for Rob Penney and his players.

In a tight group, with three teams vying for top spot and automatic qualification, games of this intensity tend to be decided by the small margins — and they all cost Munster in the Watford rain yesterday.

There is much to be said in dismissing statistics but their reading of this game reveals just how close this contest was. Eighty tackles made apiece, both teams missing six each; Saracens’ 100% return from the lineout to Munster’s 93%; a 10-8 turnover count in favour of the home side and 10 penalties apiece conceded. In other areas, Munster were the better side, in terms of possession and territory, rucks and mauls count, metres made and beating Saracens at scrum time with a 100% success rate to the Londoners’ 80%.

Yet stats can only tell you so much. They will not tell you, for instance, that when it counted, Saracens turned the screw at scrum time during the last 20 minutes or that when they were a man down following the 63rd-minute yellow card for flanker Will Fraser, they kept the visitors scoreless, with Ronan O’Gara narrowly missing both a drop goal and penalty during that 10 minutes of superiority.

And nor will the statistics inform anyone that of those 10 penalties conceded by Munster, two of them, in those final 20 minutes, were crucial to the outcome, indiscretions committed well within the range of Owen Farrell’s rejuvenated kicking boot.

In a hard-fought, close game such as this, those are the things that decide matches and Munster need to win next month’s remaining pool games, at win-less, try-less Edinburgh and then at home to Racing Metro, to give themselves any hope of reaching the quarter-finals.

They will not lack belief, but need to narrow those margins and turn them in their favour.

“When they got that yellow card I felt we were going to dominate more than we actually did,” said Munster wing Simon Zebo, who played most of the game at full-back following a thigh injury to Felix Jones after 18 minutes.

“I think we needed to capitalise a little bit more and probably dot down a score but we weren’t able to do that on the night. It’s hard to remember what actually happened but we probably left one or two scores out there.”

That has been a familiar refrain this season, at Ravenhill and the Aviva Stadium in big interprovincial RaboDirect Pro12 games, and at Stade de France, where Racing Metro were let off the hook in the opening Heineken Cup round in a reverse that has seen Munster scrambling to get back on the front foot ever since.

Beating Saracens 15-9 at Thomond Park eight days earlier went some way to doing that but not for the first time in this season of transition, Munster have taken two steps forward and then gone one back.

They had lost loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne to a gastric illness in the 30 hours before kick-off, but had the luxury of bringing Wian du Preez back into the front row. And when Jones departed Zebo filled the breach.

Still, small margins, and Penney pointed to the “disconnect” Saracens spotted a couple of minutes after the starting full-back left the field when Richard Wigglesworth saw a rare patch of green field and landed an excellently weighted, angled grubber kick for David Strettle to pounce on. Farrell converted to push the home side 10-3 up but the England fly-half gifted Munster a way back in when James Downey read his long pass and bullocked into the Saracens 22 before feeding Doug Howlett to dot down.

O’Gara’s conversion made it 10-10 and Munster went in at the break far the happier group. He added a penalty soon after the break, cancelled out by Farrell, but then came the decisive sin-binning of Fraser in the 63rd minute. Decisive in terms of Munster’s failure to capitalise, to convert some impressive mutli-phase play against some brave-hearted home defending that forced O’Gara back into the pocket to attempt a failed drop goal. With the sin-bin clock ticking, Munster won a penalty out wide and the penalty went begging again.

Small margins.

Scorers for Saracens: Try: Strettle. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 4.

Scorers for Munster: Try: Howlett. Con: O’Gara. Pens: O’Gara 2.

SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; R Gill, S Brits, M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, G Kruis, W Fraser, K Brown.

Replacements: C Wyles for Goode (62), N de Kock for Wigglesworth (51), M Vunipola for Gill (41), J Smit for Brits (60).

MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; W Du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha, Don O’Callaghan, D Ryan, Dave O’Callaghan, P O’Mahony, J Coughlan.

Replacements: L O’Dea for Jones (18), M Horan for Du Preez (71), S Archer for Botha (76), P Butler for O’Mahony (67).

Referee: Jerome Garces (Fra).

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