Munster 14 Saracens 3
Munster delivered a Champions Cup statement last night as they outmuscled English Premiership leaders Saracens on another famous European night at Thomond Park.
It sends them top of a pool they were expected to struggle in against the likes of heavyweight rivals Saracens and Clermont but after two wins from two, they will now look forward with anticipation to their back-to-back contests with the French giants in December.
If Munster had got out of jail with their last-gasp victory at Sale Sharks six days previously, this was an altogether more convincing performance. Far from perfect, make no mistake, particularly as fly-half Ian Keatley left his kicking boots back in Sale and 14 points out on the pitch in Limerick. But this was a powerhouse team performance from Munster against a side not short on muscle themselves.
The roar which had sent them back into the dressing rooms following their pre-match warm-up indicated another big European night ahead, but the opening fare when referee Jerome Garces got the game under way was not of the blockbusting variety.
For a Munster side that has had its fair share of sloppy first halves this season, their solid start to this match will have come as a welcome bonus. Head coach Anthony Foley and his players had preached the importance of avoiding the calamitous first half at Sale last Saturday and it was steady as she goes from the off as the basics were executed with care rather than adventure.
The first real surprise was when Saracens centre Marcelo Bosch stepped up to take his side’s first penalty rather than fly-half Owen Farrell. It was a long-range effort just inside the Munster half in the seventh minute but with Farrell nursing an injured quad muscle back to full fitness, the kicking duties went to his Argentine team-mate, who promptly missed.
It was Keatley’s turn three minutes later as his penalty from the left flank struck the far upright and it stayed scoreless until the 26th minute after a cagey opening period of play.
Keatley, though, got his chance thanks to a rolling maul which earned him a shot at goal and from left of the posts, the fly-half sent the home side into a 3-0 lead.
Saracens, however, were beginning to go through the gears with half-backs Neil De Kock and Farrell prompting, and No.8 Billy Vunipola carrying them over the gain line with regularity.
They appeared to get their reward on the half hour after a period of possession inside the Munster 22 earned them a penalty against BJ Botha at a maul, offering up a close-range kick to Farrell that the normally dependable England fly-half somehow managed to hook wide.
It was a lucky escape and Munster had a chance to go into the break in front when Botha justified his inclusion at tight head by winning a penalty at the scrum. Yet Keatley missed again and the interval came with a whimper rather than the required bang, the scores level at 3-3.
The way the second half started, Munster looked like they would pay for the miss as Saracens began much brighter with wing Chris Ashton carving the Reds’ defence open, evading tackles and sending a kick behind the line that just evaded wing partner David Strettle.
Munster were under the cosh but their defensive rearguard marked a shift in the momentum that was given extra impetus by a yellow card for replacement prop Rhys Gill, for upending Stander in a spear tackle in the 51st minute.
The sell-out Thomond Park crowd sensed it too, and as the decibels cranked up, so did Munster’s intensity, Stander to the fore as his side won a penalty on the edge of the Saracens’ 22, and Keatley dispatched it to send the home side in front at 6-3.
Suddenly it was all Munster and Saracens who were on the ropes. Andrew Conway, lively throughout, made a line break off an inside pass from Keatley, who then sent a grubber in behind the visitors’ line and into touch on their five-metre line. The pressure from the lineout saw replacement scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth clear only to his 22, and Munster piled on the pressure from their effective lineout platform. It was only a matter of time before they got over the line and it was Conway who managed it in the corner, only for the TMO to rule out the try.
Yet it was a brief stay of execution for Sarries as they had conceded a penalty in the previous ruck and when Keatley kicked it into the corner the resultant lineout brought the try Munster deserved.
He had barely been on a minute but having replaced James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne made his presence felt immediately as Munster’s drive from a Dave Foley catch blew Saracens away on their own line and the sub loosehead touched down to at last put some daylight between his side and the English visitors.
Kilcoyne missed the touchline conversion attempt, his fourth miss of the night from five attempts, but made partial amends as his pack once again manoeuvred him into drop-goal position to give Munster a 14-3 lead with 15 minutes to go.
It should have been better, but Keatley missed another hard-earned penalty with nine minutes left on the clock. His forwards deserved better but they will take comfort in a thoroughly well-executed and extremely valuable European victory.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (G van den Heever, 79); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 79), C Murray (D Williams, 79); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 59), D Casey (E Guinazu, 72), BJ Botha (S Archer, 72), D Foley (B Holland, 72), P O’Connell, P O’Mahony – captain (R Copeland, 67), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (D Taylor, 55), B Barritt — captain, D Strettle; O Farrell, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 45); R Barrington (R Gill, 42), J George (S Spurling, 72), P du Plessis (J Johnston, 52), G Kruis, J Hamilton (M Botha, 38-41), K Brown, W Fraser (J Wray, 72), B Vunipola (Fraser, 75)
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
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