Did Munster deserve a losing bonus point? Deserve has nothing to do with it

The match point total will tell you all you need to know about the result. 4-0 Saracens. 5-4 across the head-to-head.

Did Munster deserve a losing bonus point? Deserve has nothing to do with it

The match point total will tell you all you need to know about the result. 4-0 Saracens. 5-4 across the head-to-head.

The overall performance may be distinct from the result but the result always gets the main billing and rightly so. In a lot of ways, this Saracens side - along with Leinster - are the benchmark in European rugby in 2019. Even with Itoje and Barritt rotated out, they had six British & Irish Lions (seven really, when you consider Billy Vunipola), a rake of international standard players and a World Cup-winning tighthead prop to come back in this weekend after sitting last weekend out.

That kind of quality, especially in the pack, usually counts for an awful lot in deciding European rugby matches at this top level. Even still, Munster were a poor decision in the last five minutes away from possibly coming away with a losing bonus point. That moment - choosing to go down the line rather than kick for the posts from just inside the 10m line on the 15m hash - would prove to be pivotal. They might well have missed the kick anyway but without a reward from the resulting lineout, it becomes a bad decision almost immediately.

Did Munster deserve that losing bonus point on the balance of play over the 80 minutes? Yes, probably, but you get what you earn in the Heineken Cup against sides like Saracens and when it comes to the nitty-gritty of pool play, deserve has got nothing to do with it.

This is a results business and when you don’t get anything away from home, you’ll be under pressure in this condensed tournament.

When you have Racing 92 - finalists two seasons ago - and Saracens, last season’s champions, in the same pool, you have to take your opportunities when they present themselves.

Both of those sides represent very recent nadirs for this Munster side - Bordeaux two seasons back and Coventry last season - so this year’s pool is something of a yardstick for Munster’s ongoing development over the last two or three years.

The development is clear but frustration remains.

That missed drop goal against Racing and a few sliding doors moments on Saturday add up to a frustrating few games for Munster. Sitting in second place on 11 points with their destiny in their own hands - albeit a destiny that involves a trip to Paris in early 2020 - isn’t the worst result in the world and the advance in quality from even last season is pretty clear. But it still feels like they’ve been undone by a few opportunities missed. Especially here in a game that reached test level intensity and quality at times.

Make no mistake, this was a high-quality contest and Munster did not look out of place. They were up against it early on by losing Peter O’Mahony before kickoff, Tadhg Beirne to a serious-looking ankle injury 10 minutes in and John Ryan to a calf injury after 25 minutes. Even with those key personnel out, were Munster better here than they were against a similar strength Saracens side in the semi-finals last season? Immeasurably so.

But they still came away with nothing, and that will be the primary thought as the planes and ferries headed home after this one. Peter O’Mahony has often made a point of ‘learning lessons’ in the aftermath of punishing defeats but this didn’t feel like one of those. There’s no moral victory here, far from it, but the improvement year-on-year is there to be seen by all except those who refuse to look.

There’s no learning to take from this defeat except that Munster need to control the small margins a little better. A penalty missed, a kick not taken, a bit of bad luck with injuries here and there - Munster aren’t that far off. The gap isn’t the chasm it once was but a gap remains all the same.

You could see it in the offensive moments in particular. Munster gave as good as they got when it came to defensive stops - at least until the earlier than planned pack changes started to bite around the 60th minute - but when it came to moving the ball up the other end it was a different story.

I felt Saracens did a really good job in stopping up Munster’s work off #9 in the phase play that took place between the 10m lines and it forced the likes of Scannell, Hanrahan and Farrell to play with more width than maybe Munster would have liked in the early goings.

That facet of the game - Munster’s willingness and ability to get the ball wide - was a key part in looking more dangerous when they entered Saracens half of the field than they had last season.

By the 60th minute, Munster were tiring. The defensive excellence that highlighted the first hour began to weaken as Saracens got the Vunipola brothers onto the ball with more regularity.

It began to tell. Billy Vunipola broke off the back of a 5m scrum - after a lucky penalty for offside in the preceding phase - beat three defenders and then offloaded over Earls to put Maitland in for the first try of the game.

In the 68th minute, there was another sliding doors moment - a long pass to Earls from Hanrahan was scragged by Maitland with Conway overlapping on the outside. It was ambitious, yes, but the space was there. Last season, Munster weren’t seeing that space.

This season, they’re a small margin away from hitting it. The ball broke under pressure, Maitland hacked downfield and Saracens would go through a number of phases before seeing Mako Vunipola touching down for the decisive score.

Munster would have another opportunity to end the game positively but came up short. So, disappointment then, but of a different colour to last season’s loss to much the same opposition. Coventry felt like a decisive statement of Saracens superiority.

Barnet felt like a game of closer margins. The gap is still there, but it’s closed in a few months of Larkham and Rowntree’s influence.

January and Paris will tell us a lot about where Munster are this season. Barnet told us that Munster are closer but still a bit off. Will the return of Carbery, Kilcoyne and O’Mahony make the difference? Paris will tell us the truth, whatever happens.

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