Saracens continued their recent dominance of Munster as they subjected the Irish province to another mauling and consigned the Reds to a third straight European semi-final defeat.
It was also the seventh semi-final defeat inflicted on Munster since they last won the Champions Cup in 2008 and in truth Johann van Graan’s side never looked like ending that miserable run in the Coventry sunshine on Saturday.
Saracens dominated for the full 80 minutes and though they only led 12-9 at half-time they hammered home their superiority in the second half with tries from Michael Rhodes and man of the match Billy Vunipola to run out comfortable winners and book a third final in the last four season against either defending champions Leinster or Toulouse, who meet in Dublin on Sunday.
This was a record 14th semi-final for two-time champions Munster and they were roared on throughout by the vast majority of a 16,000 crowd in the English Midlands but the most salient stat this time around was that Peter O’Mahony’s side had lost two semis in a row, both away, to Saracens in 2017 and Racing 92 12 months ago, and badly needed to make amends, though they were missing two of their most creative influences in the injured Keith Earls and Joey Carbery.
The province had beaten Saracens in that 2008 semi-final but the Londoners have become one of the dominant forces in the Champions Cup since the turn of this decade, reaching the semi-final stage in six of the last seven campaigns and lifting the trophy twice, back-to-back in 2016 and ‘17.
Saracens’ failure to make it three in a row last season, when they were dumped out in the quarter-finals by Leinster at the Aviva has provided the spur for this year’s title bid. Having waltzed through the pool stage unbeaten they demolished Glasgow Warriors in the last eight, making light of the late withdrawal of England captain Owen Farrell to be at the birth of his first child to run in seven tries without their playmaker and win 51-17. They came into the last four as the competition’s top points (241) and try (30) scorers and David Strettle a double try scorer against Glasgow was a late addition to their semi-final line-up replacing right wing Sean Maitland after the Scot pulled up with a hamstring injury during the warm-up on a sunny afternoon in Coventry.
Strettle’s promotion from the bench saw Alex Lewington move onto the bench as the game kicked off with the temperature at 21 degrees Centigrade.
The heat did not stifle Saracens’ eagerness to atone for last season and they quickly had Munster under pressure, forcing a penalty at a ruck to allow Owen Farrell to kick them in front after just two minutes.
It set the tone for the opening half as Saracens dominated and looked more threatening but Munster are nothing if not resilient and their strength in defence this season paid dividends as they thwarted an attack which saw half-backs Farrell and Ben Spencer kick repeatedly skywards rather than unleash a destructive backline.
Munster defence even prompted Farrell into a drop goal attempt in the fourth minute which was short and wide and the men in red soon levelled the scores as Tyler Bleyendaal kicked a penalty after Mako Vunipola went off his feet.
Saracens remained in control, however, and their pressure created some daylight on the scoreboard as Farrell kicked penalties on 18 and 26 minutes but the amount of possession they enjoyed should really have generated more points. Credit to Munster’s defence for that and their ability to match Saracens at the breakdown was also forcing mistakes from Mark McCall’s side.
Munster threatened down the left wing and got into the opposition 22 on the half-hour as hey built some multi-phase possession and capitalised when Maro Itoje went off his feet, Bleyendaal kicking the three points on offer.
Back came Saracens, powering into the Munster 22 but again making an error at a vital moment as prop Titi Lamositele knocked on under pressure from the strong visiting defensive line.
An early engagement at the ensuing scrum further punished the English club and when Itoje was caught offside just inside his own half, up stepped Conor Murray to send over the long-range penalty and level the scores at 9-9. It was an excellent kick and a message to Saracens that whatever superiority they enjoyed in terms of quality, this was a Munster team that would not take a step back.
Yet Saracens had the last laugh in the first half as Munster captain Peter O’Mahony’s knock-on in contact was deemed deliberate and Farrell slotted the penalty on the stroke of half-time to send his side 12-9 in front at the interval.
Munster will have not been too perturbed by that half-time score but there were soon in trouble after the restart as Saracens went through the phases having had their kick-off returned to them they piled on the pressure. Flanker Mike Rhodes eventually found a gap in the previously resolute Munster line for the opening try on 43 minutes and Farrell added the extras to make it a 10-point lead at 19-9, leaving Munster with a much more difficult task in the remaining 35 minutes.
Even more difficult after Farrell slotted another penalty, his fifth straight, this time from a scrum on Munster’s 10-metre line to complete a very profitable opening to the second half.
At 22-9, the momentum was all with Saracens now and they won another penalty from a lineout maul, using the advantage to advance to the Munster 22 and their dominance only undone by Liam Williams dropping the ball with the tryline in front of him.
Munster, despite the passionate urgings of their massed ranks of supporters, were on the rack and they conceded another penalty on their line, Farrell pushing the lead out further to 25-9 with his simple kick on 53 minutes.
Munster were desperate for an answer and head coach van Graan was decisive in making immediate changes, recognising the deficits in both the scrum and the air as he removed John Ryan at tighthead and Mike Haley after an uncomfortable 50 minutes at full-back while JJ Hanrahan was introduced at fly-half in place of Bleyendaal as the province’s management searched for a spark to get them back into the game.
And it worked, somehow. Munster advanced into opposition territory and won a penalty as Hanrahan kicked to the corner. Chris Farrell was held up over the line from a lineout maul and Saracens were awarded a scrum as their fans celebrated only for Munster to win the set-piece against the head as Saracens looked poised to win a penalty. As the English club’s pack protested, Munster ran it from left to right, the ball running through the hands of Rory Scannell and Chris Farrell to feed Darren Sweetnam to run in unopposed in the right corner and Hanrahan nailing the touchline conversion.
Saracens looked to hit back immediately and looked fortunate to earn a penalty as the ball went loose inside the Munster half with Tadhg Beirne accused of winning it illegally, though perhaps justice was done when Owen Farrell missed his first kick of the game on 66 minutes.
Munster supporters let forth another rousing rendition of the Fields of Athenry to stir their heroes, just as they were counter-rucked off their ball as the game went into the final 10 minutes. Saracens had the upper hand on the scoreboard and Munster the pressure to make things happen. It inevitably worked in the leading side’s favour with Strettle receiving an excellent pass on the right wing from Jamie George and scything through the defence as he cut inside, his great footwork carving open an attacking opportunity that was finished by Billy Vunipola, much to the chagrin of the Munster fans who had booed him after controversial social media comments from the England No.8 earlier in the week.
Farrell slotted the conversion and Saracens were all by home and hosed, but not before they lost replacement prop Vincent Koch to the sin bin after he and Itoje tip-tackled Tadhg Beirne in the 77th minute.
It mattered little in the scheme of things, Saracens ending the game on another scrum penalty after Lamositele was reinstalled, Munster’s resistance undone yet again.
A Goode; D Strettle (A Lewington, 74), A Lozowski, B Barritt - captain (N Tompkins, h-t), L Williams; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth, 74); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 64), J George (J Gray, 74) , T Lamositele (V Koch, 58); M Itoje, G Kruis (T Lamositele 79 - for sin-bin scrum); M Rhodes (S Burger, 74), J Wray (W Skelton, 58), B Vunipola.
M Haley (D Goggin, 50); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, D Sweetnam; T Bleyendaal (JJ Hanrahan, 53), C Murray (A Mathewson, 73); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 60), N Scannell (R Marshall, 67), J Ryan (S Archer, 50); J Kleyn (B Holland, 60), T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue (A Botha, 67), CJ Stander.
Jérome Garcès (France)
Player ratingsBy Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh
Mike Haley, 5, targeted in the air by Sarries from the off, and coughed up a penalty early on. Recovered, but a struggle.
Andrew Conway, 5, huge catch under high ball after 12 minutes and always eager to run but a tough day for any back in red.
Chris Farrell, 6, some massive hits early on but key input was his catch and pass for Sweetnam's try in the second half. Big display.
Rory Scannell, 5, big turnover early on with Munster under pressure, but his 12 tackles compared to four carries tells a story.
Darren Sweetnam, 6, in for Keith Earls and made a big cover tackle on Strettle just short of the Munster line. Scored a try on the hour, but too little, too late.
Tyler Bleyendaal, 5, big big day for the No 10 with Joey Carbery injured, but Munster couldn't give him the platform to perform.
Conor Murray, 6, on the ball to pick up from Saracen's scrum slip on the hour – leading to Sweetnam's try. Passed more than usual, but unable to control the game.
Dave Kilcoyne, 5, prop reached double figures in the tackle count before half time, telling the story of Munster's opening half.
Niall Scannell, 6, 100% at the set piece, with nine throws from nine, giving Saracens no return at lineout time.
John Ryan, 5, only the one scrum in the opening 40 as Munster's forwards were kept on their toes. Failed to stop the white wave.
Jean Kleyn, 6, some good carries to release pressure in the opening half, and got through 14 tackles, but still came off second best.
Tadhg Beirne, 6, not as involved as he'd have liked as Munster stayed away from the breakdown, and when he did enter two white shirts pounded back.
Peter O’Mahony (c),6, pulled up for a deliberate knock on just on the half time, but the skipper kept going- ending with 17 tackles.
Jack O’Donoghue, 6, eager in the early exchanges against a powerful, dominant Saracens pack. Tired eventually.
CJ Stander, 6, huge steal early on gave Munster fans something to cheer, but there wasn't a huge lot else. 14 carries and 19 tackles showed effort, but put in shade by Vunipola.
Alex Goode, 6, a key figure in the early exchanges as Sarries started like a train, the full back was a constant source of go forward ball.
David Strettle, 6, late replacement for Sean Maitland and got involved – one of three Sarries backs to carry for over 50m.
Alex Lozowski, 5, enjoyed a midfield battle with Chris Farrell, and provided a more than decent defensive display.
Brad Barritt (c), 6 a close call to make it into the starting XV but the midfielder didn't make it past half time, leaving with an ankle strain.
Liam Williams, 7, chasing a treble – after winning the grand slam with Wales, the winger was solid as ever under the high ball, and always a counter threat.
Owen Farrell, 7, took his points when on offer early on, and a missed drop goal attempt showed the respect he had for the opposition.
Ben Spencer; 7, box kicks early on heaped pressure on Munster, the scrum half saw more of the ball than anyone else, as the home side dominated possession.
Mako Vunipola, 8, in the frontrow – and the front line of Saracens' physical dominance. Go forward ball at every touch.
Jamie George, 7, 100% at set piece, like Scannell, as Sarries did the basics right all day long. A breakdown nuisance.
Titi Lamositele, 7, a keen carrier as Sarries' pack did their bit to dismantle and demoralise the visitors.
Maro Itoje, 8, 17 tackles and 23 carries – the Itoje/James Ryan final showdown is a second row battle rugby wants to see.
George Kruis, 7, looks quiet alongside Itoje, but the Kruis missile was an eager destroyer of Munster momentum, with some well timed tackles.
Michael Rhodes, 7, the right man at the right time – scoring the first try of the game after the restart, all too easily, after 20+ phases.
Jackson Wray, 6, 12 tackles by the time he left the park – a bit of steel in an understated wrapping.
Billy Vunipola, 8, booed on each touch, which will have left Munster fans hoarse. Second half try was game ender – and laughed at Munster fans while celebrating it, to boot. The chosen one.