The second leg of the European clash between Saracens and Munster saw the clash move to Allianz Park. Munster fans will not have had fond memories of their last visit to the home of Saracens in 2012, in what I would say was an error of judgement, loud music was played over them every time they sang The Fields of Athenry. As a home fan I was appalled, the reason given was it was an attempt to be the 16th man. I very much hoped it wouldn’t be repeated!
Each team had a late change in their line up, with Munster losing Connor Murray to a neck injury and for Saracens David Strettle was unable to turn out. Brad Barritt made a welcome return for the home team. The game in Limerick was a close one, with hardly anything between the teams, the fate of the game turned on a red card for Rhys Gill. It had to be hoped this game would be all about the rugby.
In spite of a determined push by Saracens to keep Munster fans numbers low it was great to see a big support for them, Munster flags were being handed out outside the ground and there were thousands of willing travelling fans to take them!
The game started with an unusual number of line outs; Saracens had an early chance on the 3rd one after Alistair Hargreaves and Jim Hamilton charged down Duncan Williams box kick. Hargreaves took the ball, had he not hesitated looking for a pass I’d say he’d have run in to score, instead Ian Keatley did enough to ensure we saw another lineout.
Owen Farrell was the 1st to score as he converted a penalty given against Munster in the ruck; the silence wasn’t a match for Thomond Park but much better than it usually is at Allianz Park.
We were treated to The Fields of Athenry after 11 minutes and it was a relief that cries of ‘Sarries, Sarries’ was all that happened in response!
Having had an excess of lineouts the 1st scrum didn’t come until 15 minutes had been played; a Munster put in, but pressure form Saracens saw untidy ball for them, Kelly Brown was on to the ball very quickly and Saracens won a penalty. Billy Vunipola has been coming back to form, he seems to thrive when big brother Mako is on the pitch with him. He drove the ball forward putting his team in a strong attacking position. A forward pass by Alex Goode to Chris Wyles on the wing stopped the move in its tracks.
As the game clicked into the 2nd quarter Saracens were awarded a scrum put in, they drove forward with Billy V protection the ball, he picked and ran as the scrum wheeled round. The ball was spread form one side of the pitch to the other, with Chris Ashton tracking the ball to the other wing, he combined with Alex Goode whose pass was spot on this time to Wyles! Wyles scored the 1st try of the game running into an open space. Billy V was involved further into the move, acting as the decoy runner. Owen Farrell in form with the boot added the extras to put his team ahead by 10.
The 1st moment of controversy came when Owen Farrell put in a high kick, Simon Zebo was the man under the ball, but Chris Ashton had rushed up field and became the man under Zebo sending him crashing to the floor. As will always be the way Zebo’s team mates took exception and James Cronin bundled into Ashton, who else but Jim Hamilton came to his rescue. A penalty was awarded immediately as was only right. I do take issue with those Saracens fans who yelled at Zebo to get up, he landed heavily and was well within his rights to take his time. No card, which I’m sure was also the right decision.
Munster seemed to be a little out of sorts, not a technical term I know, but possibly a fair description to explain some of the errors that happened in the 1st half, with uncharacteristic knock ons losing them possession on more than one occasion. A huge drive by Saracens from one such knock on saw Munster pushed back and a penalty awarded. In a big blow for Munster, CJ Stander limped off the field on 27 minutes as a lineout was about to be set.
As Saracens attacked from the lineout, Duncan Casey went for an interception and knocked on, I’d be very interested to see the rules regarding a deliberate knock on, but I for one will never shout for a yellow card, as a fair number of Saracens fans did, should it be deemed to be so. The knock on halted the play to take it back to an earlier penalty. Owen Farrell converted adding to his teams’ tally.
Ian Keatley was given the chance to put Munster on the scoreboard after a penalty was awarded against Saracens in a scrum, he cooly kicked the ball over the posts. However a penalty award against Munster saw Saracens take a quick tap, the ball was passed out to Wyles on the wing again, this time he became provider for Chris Ashton as he put a neat kick in for Ashton to pounce on, Farrell added the 2 points. The final kick of the half was another penalty for Saracens, Owen Farrell slotted the ball between the posts to take the score to Saracens 23 Munster 3 at half time.
Munster emerged for the 2nd half and looked in a more determined mood as 1st Andrew Conway then Zebo made goos runs, breaking tackles as the did so. Would they be able to make a come back? After 19 phases of play however Mako V got himself over the ball and won his team a penalty as Munster held the ball.
Munster weren’t to see much of the Saracens half for the majority of the 2nd half as they continued to make errors in their own half, a loose pass, a knock on gifting possession back to the home team. Watching again on the TV one such error was at a lineout close to the Munster line; Duncan Casey threw the ball at Paul O’Connell who basically had his back turned! I’d argue that Jim Hamilton got a hand to the ball and knocked on, but Casey certainly did and Saracens were awarded the scrum. Luckily for Munster the scrum didn’t quite work for Saracens.
The next scrum did work for the home team, they were awarded a penalty which Farrell again converted. Another chance at 64 minutes as missed by Owen Farrell, it really does have to be asked why Saracens weren’t looking to score 4 tries to tie up the bonus point win, in spite of the fact Farrell had been accurate up to that point. A failure to strike when they’ve had a team under the cosh may well cost dear both in Europe and the Premiership.
The referee had been losing patience with Munster as they absorbed a lot of pressure from Saracens and James Cronin took a yellow for the team as he ‘tackled’ Neil De Kock off the ball, what he actually did was shove him away as he he went into the ruck. Saracens made wholesale changes in the forwards asa scrum was set on the Munster line after Saracens knocked on.
Munster cleared the ball and Zebo again stormed up the pitch, he passed to Duncan Williams who kicked the ball on, Billy V looked to have tackled him late. However the tackle wasn’t looked at in detail, as Alex Goode refused to let Peter O’Mahony take the ball, Jacques Burger came to his rescue and the 2 forwards had a show of handbags. I do wonder if O’Mahony’s grab at Burgers’ face may be looked at again. A penalty was awarded against Billy V.
The penalty put Munster in the Saracens half for the 2nd time in the 40 minutes and up popped O’Mahony to break through, Dennis Hurley was the man to benefit, he scored a great try, Keatley converted to take Munster to 10. The team with 14 man had scored the try rather than the team who had the lions share of the territory in the 2nd half
Saracens were to finish off the scoring through a try from Chris Ashton who found the gap in the Munster defence on his own wing this time, he took a pass from Jamie George, switched his line and scored, Farrell converted the try to take the score to Saracens 33 Munster Rugby 10 and that’s how things finished.
Saracens travel to play Clermont Auvergne next weekend to take on the team they beat at home with a bonus point performance, they of course also beat them by a huge margin in the semi final of the Heineken Cup at Twickenham. I have a feeling Clermont will be tougher opposition in France, but the quarter finals are in sight, hopefully Saracens won’t regret the failure to chase the bonus point.
For Munster it would seem that European rugby won’t continue past the tabs stage, giving them an opportunity to concentrate on Top 12 rugby. I’m also pleased to note that the Munster fans had an enjoyable afternoon in spite of the result and hopefully go home with a much better impression of Saracens as a club.