European Champions Cup Pool 1
Saracens 33 Munster 10
THE cry from a travelling supporter in the West Stand was heard midway through the opening half at Allianz Park and yet, even at that early stage, in the proceedings it smacked of desperation.
“You’re better than this Munster!” screamed the fan after yet another error had been committed by the team he had come to praise but was forced to watch being buried by a ruthless Saracens side capable of at least repeating their march to last season’s final.
There will be no such progression for Munster in this Champions Cup campaign, however. A third straight defeat in Pool 1, the first time the province has suffered such an indignity, means the province are eliminated ahead of the final game, and have much to ponder while their European rivals carry on regardless.
On the performance they delivered in north London on Saturday, the new competition will be better off without them, but that is precisely what galled not just another fantastic away support among this 10,000 sell-out crowd but also head coach Anthony Foley, whose first season in charge will now be considered a failure regardless of any success in the Pro12 this season.
Europe is the province’s measure of success and as such the team could always be relied upon to produce a performance when it mattered most. There was no more urgent moment when that was required than against Saracens at the weekend, in a must-win game for both sides, yet Munster failed to deliver, making error after error, in terms of both execution and decision-making and allowing an on-song Saracens side to bully them in all aspects of the game.
That supporter is right, this ~Munster team is better than the effort they produced in the winter sunshine. The hammering of Toulouse last April and two Heineken Cup semi-final appearances in the last two seasons attest to that, but the trend is a downward one. The champions of 2006 and 2008 have gone from narrowly losing to Clermont Auvergne in 2013 to a slightly bigger defeat at the hands of Toulon last season. This term it has been three straight defeats, to Clermont, home and away, and now Saracens.
Foley insisted Munster can continue to keep with such European powerhouses despite their massive budgets and relentless recruitment of the world’s best players.
“Yes, we can,” he said. “We can’t be going into a key game with 16 of our squad unavailable due to injury for this week. Now, not all those players would play, but there’s a good chunk of them that would make the side and make the 23. So it’s about keeping fellas on their feet and making sure we get to the big games in the big competitions that we’ve the majority of our squad fit.”
Foley makes a fair point regarding injuries, but, in truth, Munster are struggling to hang on to their rivals’ coat-tails. Rivals whose strength in depth means that the loss of a Conor Murray, for instance, would see a similarly world-class player replace him, whereas Munster did not even have a fit scrum-half to put on the bench. Saracens lost England wing David Strettle to a back problem before kick off and called USA international Chris Wyles into the starting XV.
Munster simply do not have the resources to compete, and when the frontliners fail to produce — as was the case Saturday — the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is brutally exposed.
Losing No. 8 and player of the season CJ Stander to an ankle injury on 27 minutes merely compounded the problems because by then Munster were already being pushed around in the scrum, out-muscled at the breakdown and unable to contain rampant No.8 Billy Vunipola.
They were also masters of their own downfall in possession and this was as poor a performance from Munster team as one has seen in Europe since their rise to prominence in the Heineken Cup at the start of the century.
A box kick from scrum-half Duncan Williams charged down by Saracens captain Alistair Hargreaves in the third minute was ominous as the home side’s pressure continued to force mistake after mistake from the visitors and kept them pinned in their own half for much of the rest of the game. Munster simply could not hold on to the ball and when they did they handed the initiative straight back to the Premiership side to invite yet more pressure.
Saracens lost 14-3 in Limerick in round two as Munster dominated the air and the land and took advantage of poor discipline from Mark McCall’s side. Round five was a complete turnaround as the English outfit cleaned up its act to allow Ian Keatley just one kick at goal, conceding just four penalties.
That kick came in the 33rd minute, Keatley’s score reducing the deficit to 13-3 following a try from Wyles and a conversion and two penalties from Owen Farrell, making a timely point to watching England selectors Graeme Rowntree and Andy Farrell, his father, who had replaced him during the November Tests with George Ford.
Keatley’s penalty was a brief interlude in Saracens’ dominant first-half display, their other England wing, Chris Ashton responding two minutes later with a try of his own after the Munster defence was wrong-footed following another siege inside their 22. Farrell duly converted and added another penalty to end the opening period, Munster finding a sheer cliff in front of them at 23-3 down.
If there was to be a way into the contest it had to come quickly after the restart and the lively Simon Zebo provided the spark, shaking off a couple of tackles on halfway and sprinting into the 22, only for the pressure to abate a few phases later as Saracens’ self-styled wolf-pack defence lived up to its billing and forced a penalty from centre Pat Howard close to the line.
From there, Saracens dominated possession in search of a four-try bonus point they needed to maintain pressure on pool leaders Clermont heading into their round-six showdown at Stade Marcel Michelin. That it didn’t come is a credit to Munster’s defensive effort deep into the second-half, despite James Cronin’s yellow card for a ruck misdemeanour with 14 minutes to go. And yet at their lowest ebb, Munster finally showed some fight, a brief flicker of momentum seeing Denis Hurley dive under the posts with 10 minutes to go, Keatley’s conversion getting the visitors into double figures, only for Saracens to immediately rebound with another Ashton try, converted by Farrell. It left the elusive bonus point as McCall’s only quibble and Anthony Foley to consider a long and potentially difficult campaign to be fought on just the one front for only the second time in 16 seasons.
“It is (difficult) but we’ve got to re-focus. We’ve got to get back into our league in a month’s time, and make sure that we’re right there; get a few broken bodies back onto their feet and see if we can launch an attack at the top of that table.”
First, though, the visit of fellow pool no-hopers Sale Sharks to Thomond Park next Sunday and the unusual prospect of a dead rubber with only pride at stake. These are different times for Munster.
SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (B Ransom, 74), B Barritt (C Hodgson, 64) , C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 64); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 67), J George (B Sharman, 74), P du Plessis (J Johnston, 67); J Hamilton (M Itoje, 74), A Hargreaves ,capt; K Brown (E Joubert, 67), J Burger, B Vunipola.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, P Howard (K Earls, 48), D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 74); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 74), D Williams; J Cronin (J Ryan, 76), D Casey (E Guinazu, 61), BJ Botha (S Archer, 58); D Foley (Billy Holland, 74), P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, capt, T O’Donnell (J Ryan 68-76, during Cronin sin bin), CJ Stander (Dave O’Callaghan, 27)
Yellow card: Cronin 66-76
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra) — replaced by Christophe Berdos (Fra, 74)
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