Ahead of Saturday's eagerly awaited Heineken Champions Cup semi-final clash between Munster and Saracens we look back at previous titanic clashes between these two old rivals.
Writing in the Irish Examiner on April 28, 2014, Charlie Mulqueen named this encounter one of his top 10 most memorable Munster matches.
Mulqueen wrote: “The love affair between Munster and the Red Army was developing slowly but surely when they arrived at the home of Watford Football Club in November 1999 to take on the expensively compiled Saracens squad led by Springbok icon Francois Pienaar.
"The relationship blossomed into something magical on that remarkable Sunday when Munster twice came from behind to emerge winners of an enthralling encounter by a point. They were 21-9 in arrears at one stage in the second half before rallying to take the lead, then fell well behind again only to find the inspiration to create a great try by Jeremy Staunton which Ronan O’Gara converted. Later that season, they were to again pip Saracens by a point, thanks to further last-minute heroics by Keith Wood and O’Gara.”
Once again there was precious little to separate the two teams back in Limerick but the visitors had taken a healthy 17-8 lead on a rainy day at Thomond into the half-time interval, Cork-born Darragh O’Mahony opening the scoring for the visitors.
The second-half Munster fightback was to become a hallmark of the province’s European forays, though, Jason Holland’s try leading the response before Ronan O’Gara and Thierry Lacroix exchanged penalties. Sarries looked to have sealed victory with a mauled try close to full-time but Munster were not done. An even later try from Keith Wood, converted off an upright by O’Gara, and a drop-goal attempt charged down by John Langford completed the comeback victory in a season that would end with a first European final appearance at Twickenham, where another English club, Northampton would squeak home 9-8.
The champions of two years previously came up against an Alan Gaffney-coached Saracens side playing its first semi-final but Munster’s supreme confidence was rocked by an early Kameli Ratuvou try. Enter O’Gara, who slotted a penalty and then made a sniping run to get over the line and put Munster back in front. An Alan Quinlan try under the posts after strong running from Ian Dowling and Doug Howlett gave Munster a 15-7 half-time cushion, only for Glen Jackson’s boot to close the gap to two points. There was another twist as Saracens were reduced to 13 men with two yellow cards in short order for props Nick Lloyd and Census Johnston. A penalty apiece for O’Gara and Jackson kept the sides within touching distance of one another but Munster’s big-game experience saw them through to a final against Toulouse and a second title in three seasons with a 16-13 victory in Cardiff.
“We defended for such long periods, we made life difficult for ourselves,” head coach Declan Kidney said. “But that’s maybe disingenuous, it just shows how much pressure Saracens put us under.
“Huge credit to the players. There was a lot of talk about this being an easy game but if we weren’t at the pitch of it today then we might not have got away with the result.”
An intensely physical encounter highlighted by the unerring boot of Ronan O’Gara and the unusually wayward kicking of Owen Farrell in a tryless encounter in Limerick. It had Munster head coach Rob Penney admiring his side’s “heart and soul” approach to their task but also making thinly-veiled criticism of French referee Pascal Gauzere, who saw fit to penalise his side 18 times to Saracens’ nine.
Back row James Coughlan certainly saw room for improvement ahead of the away fixture eight days later in England.
“We wanted to set down our marker, physically, early and I think we achieved that,” Coughlan said, “but our accuracy maybe went out the window as a result so it’s something we’re going to have to look at.
“We need to be a bit more controlled in what we’re doing because I think we left a fair amount of points behind us.”
Pool Stage, Round Four, December 16, 2012, Vicarage Road, Watford: Saracens 19 Munster 13
Munster’s discipline remained an issue in the return fixture and it proved decisive for Saracens as Owen Farrell rediscovered his kicking form in a game defined by small margins that allowed the Englishmen to take control of the pool.
One converted try apiece, David Strettle for the home side, Doug Howlett for Munster, plus a penalty each for O’Gara and Farrell left the sides level at 10-10 after 40 minutes before Saracens pressed on in the second half with Farrell outscoring O’Gara by three penalties to one, and kept the visitors at bay during a sin-binning for Will Fraser on 62 minutes.
“When they got that yellow card I felt we were going to dominate more than we actually did,” Munster wing Simon Zebo said.
“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.”
“A very, very different time for us and probably for them also in that they were probably on their journey in terms of becoming a very dominant team in Europe at that stage,” Felix Jones told the
Irish Examiner this week.
Now Munster’s attack coach, he had been starting full-back in all four pool games between the sides since 2012. The way they played the game they were probably one of the few teams out there playing it that way, a very suffocating way of playing. They still do.”
Again, it was a very tight first half, a single penalty for both sides and a 3-3 half-time scoreline before Munster widened the gap, first with an Ian Keatley penalty on 54 minutes, a Dave Kilcoyne try on 61, and a Keatley drop goal on 66.
“The game at home which we won was a huge battle, a ding-dong battle,” Jones added. “It was extremely intense, every moment being a high-level moment, every kick, every set-piece, every piece of play having a high degree of momentum-shifting ability.”
Less than 4️⃣8️⃣ hours until our Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens on Saturday (3pm)!— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 18, 2019
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A first visit to a place Saracens could finally call home and it was not a comfortable experience for the visitors in north London as the side which would go on to win back-to-back titles in the next two seasons was gathering momentum in Europe.
Munster were up against it having to do without the injured Conor Murray and the writing was on the wall when stand-in scrum-half Duncan Williams’ kick from inside his 22 was charged down by Alistair Hargreaves.
Saracens were two tries and 23-3 up by half-time and though Denis Hurley grabbed a 70th-minute try it was not nearly enough as Chris Ashton grabbed his second of the game four minutes later.
“I actually remember we started quite well,” Felix Jones said this week. “We made a break down the left edge and I thought we were going to get in but they absolutely suffocated us after that and we just had no answer to it. In particular their kicking game was just very, very dominant at that stage.
“I remember talking to Paul (O’Connell) on the plane home and we talked about how we were giving such effort at the time, as players we were trying so hard but they just had our number. The way they were playing the game was just so superior.”
For an inexperienced team that had been running on adrenalin for most of the campaign, galvanised by the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley, Munster seemed to run out of steam at a packed Aviva Stadium as they came up against the defending champions and were given a reminder of just how good you need to be to become the kings of Europe.
And yet the first try of the game did not come until the 53rd minute, Munster keeping Saracens to 6-3 at half time but rueing their inability to take the chances they had created, particularly when the English club had back-rower Jackson Wray sin-binned on 22 minutes.
“Certainly in the first half we had a good bit of dominance early in the first half and we didn’t take our opportunities,” attack coach Felix Jones said this week. “That was the takeaway from it.
“Even at half-time, it was 6-3 coming in and there was a massive moment in the game around 50-odd minutes, they were 16-3 up and we had them down in the right-hand corner and managed to get a turnover there and if we turn it into a positive result it becomes a one-score game again but the way they do and do so well, they put us under a huge amount of pressure again with a kick and actually manage to turn us back in the far corner and turned it over and managed to score.”
Mako Vunipola grabbed that breakthrough try early in the second half and wing Chris Wyles added a second on 69 minutes, Owen Farrell’s two conversions and four penalties hammering home the Sarries’ advantage before CJ Stander grabbed a consolation try in the final minute.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s a technical and tactical thing we learned, it’s more a mind thing,” director of rugby Rassie Erasmus concluded afterwards having said Munster needed to add more strings to their bow, a point picked up on by then scrum-coach, now forwards coach Jerry Flannery the following summer.
“When we looked at the Saracens game, we would have seen that ‘okay, we are not challenging them enough in certain areas’,” Flannery said. “We can’t just overpower teams like we were able to do the majority of other teams that we had played. It just showed us that there is room to grow everywhere.”