Defending champions Saracens swept to victory when they put Munster to the sword with two second half tries in the semi final of this year’s Champions Cup.
European Champions Cup semi final
Aviva Stadium was packed with 51,300 mainly Munster supporters for the occasion. Fans, acting as the 16th player, came to stand up and fight alongside a group of men who suffered the untimely loss of their head coach Anthony Foley in Paris at the start of this year’s European campaign. Still, this team battled on bravely, right through from the emotionally charged home game against Glasgow two weeks after Axel’s death until they finally came up against the might of Saracens. Even in defeat they have honoured Foley’s memory.
Despite serious traffic along the N7 and right down into Ballsbridge, Munster fans made it to the Aviva in huge numbers. In fairness the relatively small number of Saracens supporters refused to be intimidated although they were very clearly outnumbered in the sold-out stadium. Conor Murray did appear on the field before the game for a warm-up, but there were no changes to the squads named by Rassie Erasmus and Mark McCall on Friday.
Munster were setting a competition record with their 12th European Cup semi final appearance. The sides had met seven times previously with Munster winning on five occasions. A fireworks display greeted the two sides as they entered the gladiatorial arena with the sward of green completely surrounded by a red tide.
Tyler Bleyendaal got the game underway and Munster scrummaged down close to the Saracens line before the visitors turned over the ball. Munster were playing with high intensity and won a penalty advantage with 5 minutes played, the game was brought back when Peter O’Mahony was halted close to the try line by Billy Vunipola. Tyler Bleyendaal made no mistake with his initial kick, later however the fly half seemed to crack under the pressure, missing chances that he would normally put away in his sleep and making poor kicking choices.
With 12 minutes played Munster had a real let off when Sean Maitland broke down the wing for Saracens before passing the ball to Wigglesworth who seemed certain to score but dropped it at the last second. Saracens were back on level terms after 16 minutes when Andrew Conway was penalised and Owen Farrell showed why he is this year’s top scorer in the competition to make it 3-3.
Jaco Taute had the crowd on their feet with a terrific tackle on Farrell as the outhalf was about to kick the ball clear. Munster won possession and put the Saracens defence under pressure before knocking the ball on. Jackson Wray was sinbinned after a high tackle on Duncan Williams but for all their pressure Munster were unable to extract any advantage from having an extra man as Saracens were resolute in defence all day.
Owen Farrell chased down his own kick after it was caught by Williams and followed up with a great tap tackle. Farrell put Saracens ahead after Dave Kilcoyne was penalised in the subsequent scrum after 34 minutes. In the second half Simon Zebo came close to scoring but spilled the ball after a massive hit from Schalk Burger.
Soon after Munster lost their captain when Peter O’Mahony was called aside for a HIA. Just before that Jean Deysel came on for Tommy O’Donnell and did well to prevent George Kruis from scoring for the Englishmen. With O’Mahony gone, Saracens began to dominate, pinning Munster back inside their own 22. Munster turned over the ball and had a chance to clear but Bleyendaal sliced his kick gifting a line-out to the opposition.
A driving maul from Saracens ended with the first try of the game in the 55th minute from Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell added the extras to put his team 13-3 ahead. Francis Saili came on for Jaco Taute and began to have an impact on the game with some exciting runs at the opposing defence. Munster were awarded a penalty on the hour for offside but Tyler Bleyendaal was wide of the mark. Four minutes later his opposite number Farrell made no mistake to make it 16-3.
The game was over as a contest when Wyles grabbed Saracens second try in the 69th minute and Farrell added the conversion, 23-3. Ian Keatley came on for Bleyendaal as Munster supporters began streaming out of the stadium but it was Farrell who increased his side’s advantage with another penalty on 75 minutes.
Finally it was that man CJ Stander who salvaged Munster pride with a late consolation try in the last minute. Ian Keatley used a drop kick conversion to get the ball back into play but it was all too late. This was only Munster’s third defeat in the six months since Anthony Foley’s tragic death. For now their sights must remain firmly on capturing the Guinness Pro12.
All associated with Munster will be massively relieved that Rassie Erasmus has confirmed that he is going nowhere and will see out the remaining two seasons of his contract, thus ending any speculation that he would leave to take charge of his native South Africa.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute (Francis Saili 55), Rory Scannell, Keith Earls (Darren Sweetnam 64); Tyler Bleyendaal (Ian Keatley, 71), Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 52), Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall 60), John Ryan (Stephen Archer 64); Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt) (Dave O’Callaghan 52), Tommy O’Donnell (Jean Deysel 50), CJ Stander.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (A Lozowski 75), B Barritt (capt), S Maitland (C Wyles 62); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 72); M Vunipola (T Lamositele 72), J George (S Brits 50), V Koch (P Du Plessis 72); M Itoje (J Hamilton 75), G Kruis; M Rhodes, J Wray (S Burger 55), B Vunipola.
Referee: Romain Poite (France).