Munster getting there, but still stumbling over ‘what ifs’

Following this tense, fractious dust-up and defeat at Allianz Park on Saturday, Munster’s fight for Heineken Champions Cup survival now moves on from London to the French capital and a critical Pool 4 meeting with Racing 92 on January 12.

Munster getting there, but still stumbling over ‘what ifs’

And so to Paris.

Following this tense, fractious dust-up and defeat at Allianz Park on Saturday, Munster’s fight for Heineken Champions Cup survival now moves on from London to the French capital and a critical Pool 4 meeting with Racing 92 on January 12.

The City of Lights has not always been kind to the Irish province in recent seasons, with Racing and their neighbours Stade Francais having dished out campaign defeats in round five. This coming visit will have to see a reversal of that trend if Johann van Graan’s side is to have a chance of progressing to the quarter-final stages.

Saturday’s contest could have relieved the pressure given how Munster had rattled the cage of the defending champions on their home track. Leading 6-3 after 48 minutes, fly-half JJ Hanrahan could have made life more uncomfortable for Mark McCall’s near-full-strength side but missed the penalty that, if successful, may have sowed the seeds of doubt in the hosts’ minds.

Given Hanrahan’s late drop-goal miss to win the home game against Racing in round two, it would be easy to point the finger at him for leaving his province on the brink of elimination but in this instance, the die was cast in Saracens’ favour by a reportedly choice comment from a Munster medic in the direction of Jamie George.

McCall could not bring himself to repeat the alleged insult from Dr Jamie Kearns, the Munster head of medical who is understood to have apologised to player and coach for his part in the incident that prompted George to square up from the opposite side of the touchline, a confrontation which sparked a mass brawl between the two teams.

The upshot was that missed Munster penalty and Saracens ultimately proved the beneficiaries, the episode producing an upturn in intensity that van Graan’s side could not match.

Two tries, from Sean Maitland and Mako Vunipola in the 65th and 71st minutes, were the result, putting this contest beyond Munster, who compounded the defeat with an inexplicable decision, made collectively and delivered by stand-in captain CJ Stander, to turn down a possible three points with time running out and while within distance of a losing bonus point at 15-6.

Instead, they kicked to the corner, from which the only outcome could have been a try that would have taken Munster to 15-13… and a losing bonus point.

Either way, the points went begging.

So Munster now travel to Paris with 11 points on the Pool 4 table, six in arrears of Racing and only one ahead of Saracens, van Graan’s repeated warnings that every match point counts in Europe clearly having fallen on deaf ears.

Yet the Munster boss is far from daunted by the scenario. “We spoke about it as a group. We said, ‘listen, we gave it all we got, one or two things went against us but we’re not a club that’s ever going to make an excuse.

“We weren’t good enough on the evening and we lost to the champions in their own backyard, so in three weeks’ time, we’ve got to go to Paris.

For us to stay alive in Europe we need to beat Racing in their backyard and then round six will take care of itself.

“So, massive challenge ahead, we’ve got three inter pros ahead and we’ve got to rest all 12 of the guys that went to the World Cup.

"And if you look at all the guys who are currently injured plus the injuries we picked up tonight, we’re going to be really, really skinny over the next three weeks.”

Losing three Irish internationals before the game clock struck 30 hardly helped Munster’s cause, with Peter O’Mahony withdrawn before kick-off, Tadhg Beirne leaving on a stretcher after 10 minutes, and John Ryan limping out of the action on 24.

That Munster lost such an experienced rump of its forwards and still kept the best side in Europe on its toes for so long in this game is a credit to their resilience and adaptability.

The decision-making errors that ultimately cost them this game must be learned quickly as Paris and an indoor game at La Défense Arena looms.

The playing surface will be similar to the 4G Saracens field but van Graan said he is expecting “a very different game”.

“It will feel like we’re going to play in the summer again, you know, with the roof above it takes away all conditions so we’ll have to go and prepare in ways to make sure we adapt to that pitch and the humidity inside of that stadium.

“That’s the challenge in front of us. Once this pool came out everybody said it’s the pool of death, there’s still three sides in this battle and it’s possibly some of the three top sides in Europe if you look at the last three years. Sothis is going to be a massive challenge.”

Racing away need not have become such a sizeable challenge had Munster taken the opportunities they worked so hard to create at Allianz Park. Saracens also failed to take their share, Owen Farrell missing a penalty and a conversion, but Munster’s decision-making when they had earned parity at the set-piece and position on the field remains a big area for improvement, as does the concession of 12 penalties.

Munster are making progress. To have gone toe-to-toe with the European champions over 160 minutes and emerge only two points in deficit, outscored by just two tries to one, is a testament to that given their comprehensive semi-final defeats to the same club in 2017 and ’19. As Saracens director of rugby McCall conceded following their 10-3 defeat in Limerick nine days ago, Munster are now posing many more questions of defences than in previous campaigns.

All of which will make this defeat a greater point of frustration. The trick for the coaching think tank of van Graan, Stephen Larkham, and Graham Rowntree will be to ensure their players use the loss as a platform for further progression.

“I said in the week that it will take time but I don’t want to use that as an excuse to say, ‘Oh we didn’t get the points tonight because of time’,” said the head coach.

“We’ll just take every game like we’ve always done, one step, take it on the chin, we gave it all we’ve got, and we lost to a better team on the night.

“We will get there. We are moving forward. If you look at that dressing-room, you look at 23 guys that gave it everything they’ve got and as a coach that’s all you can ask for. We’ll improve as a group.”

SARACENS: M Malins; S Maitland, A Lozowski (D Taylor, 60), N Tompkins (Manu Vunipola, 79), E Daly; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer, 52); Mako Vunipola (R Barrington, 72), J George (T Woolstencroft, 72), V Koch (J Ibuanokpe, 74); J Kpoku (J Wray, 59), G Kruis; N Isiekwe, B Earl, B Vunipola (C Clark, 74).

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway (D Goggin, 52), C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (N McCarthy, 74); J Cronin (L O’Connor, 67), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 72), J Ryan (S Archer, 24); J Kleyn (F Wycherley, 67), B Holland; T Beirne (T O’Donnell, 10; C Cloete, 72), J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.

Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)

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