Munster fell to a nine-point loss to reigning champions Saracens in their Heineken Champions Cup clash in Allianz Park this afternoon.
Following last week’s win, this was always going to be a formidable challenge for the Irish province with the number of England internationals returning to the Saracens line-up. However, that challenge was intensified by the loss of Peter O’Mahony to a groin injury in the warm-up while Tadhg Beirne and John Ryan also departed through injury in the first period.
Yet the heroic Munster defence held firm for 66 minutes with Conor Murray and JJ Hanrahan dictating the play. Eventually, they fell following sustained pressure from Saracens and with Billy Vunipola and their forwards in devastating form, a second try followed minutes later leaving Munster without a losing bonus-point.
In a further blow, Andrew Conway failed a HIA during the game leaving Munster with a lengthy list of injury concerns.
It took Saracens seven minutes to open the scoring with an Owen Farrell penalty but the margin could have been wider as Mike Haley had fumbled a ball on the sideline, gifting Saracens a five-metre lineout from their own kick in open play.
In the 11th minute, referee Pascal Gauzère immediately stopped the clock when Tadhg Beirne landed awkwardly on the floor following a tackle. The influential back-rower was in obvious distress as he was stretchered off the field with a suspected knee injury as Tommy O’Donnell entered the fray.
Munster began to leak penalties close to their own line with O’Donoghue being singled out. Farrell opted for the corner and Saracens set their maul. As Johann van Graan’s men looked under pressure, O’Donoghue and O’Donnell combined to brilliantly turn over the ball. Munster’s defensive duties were far from over as they failed to clear their lines sufficiently. Once again, they responded to the challenge brilliantly, this time James Cronin, stealing the ball on the ground.
That turnover and kick down the line from Hanrahan set up a promising attack for Munster with the influence of Stephen Larkham evident. Rory Scannell sent an incredible floating pass to Andrew Conway on the wing who was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Max Malins. Munster were playing with an advantage and when play was brought back, Hanrahan opted for the posts and levelled the game.
The visitors were put on the back foot almost immediately as Saracens tore for the Munster line. Just as Richard Wigglesworth looked to pass the ball from the ruck, Keith Earls disrupted causing the scrum-half to knock on and Munster expertly relieved the pressure again. Their defensive effort continued to impress for the rest of the half as their line speed prevented Saracens from setting an attacking platform. Conor Murray was pinged for a high tackle on Nick Isiekwe but Farrell’s penalty attempted drifted right and wide. The error count crept up for Saracens as they were gifted a penalty in the scrum but Elliot Daly kicked the ball dead and the half finished at three points apiece.
Munster doubled their lead in the 43rd minute with a Hanrahan penalty after Earls was tackled off the ball by Ben Earl. The game then descended into a battle of kick tennis as both teams competed for territory. The Irish province won that contest as they piled pressure on Sean Maitland who attempted to run the ball out and the ball went out of play off his hand. A major scrap broke out on the sideline when Jamie George took offence at a Munster medic and the referee penalised Owen Farrell for running 10 metres to get involved. Saracens were let off the hook however when Hanrahan missed the kick.
Those events appeared to spark Saracens into life and they notched up the intensity levels. Jean Kleyn managed to steal a lineout ball to ease the pressure but the Premiership side were relentless. Saracens returned the favour moments later when Munster had a lineout on their own five-metre line. The home side were then awarded a penalty and Farrell opted for a scrum. Under pressure, Munster began to leak penalties and they could only hold out Saracens for so long as Maitland eventually touched down in the corner. Farrell, however, missed the conversion.
Mako Vunipola barged over for another Saracens try just minutes later following a Maitland intercept from a Hanrahan pass. This time, Farrell made no mistake and they stretched their lead to 10 with seven minutes remaining.
Munster were gifted an opportunity to respond when they were awarded a penalty in front of the posts but the easy points were turned down in favour of a kick to the corner. Saracens turned over possession in the maul and that decision crucially cost Munster a losing bonus-point.
Saracens: Max Malins, Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Nick Tompkins, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Joel Kpoku, George Kruis, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Tom Woolstencroft, Richard Barrington, Josh Ibuanokpe, Calum Clark, Jackson Wray, Ben Spencer, Manu Vunipola, Duncan Taylor.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Tadhg Beirne, Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Liam O’Connor, Stephen Archer, Fineen Wycherley, Nick McCarthy, Dan Goggin, Tommy O’Donnell.