Saracens finally ended the English curse in Dublin with a 26-10 victory over Munster to reach the European Champions Cup final in three weeks’ time, ending the Irish side’s emotional and incredible run this season.
Four months after the sudden death of their head coach, Anthony Foley, the sight of Munster in the semi-finals of Europe’s premier competition was a heart-warming one, but not even that could derail this great Saracens side.
Tries from Mako Vunipola and replacement Chris Wyles ensured that the reigning champions will have the chance to retain their crown in Edinburgh in three weeks’ time against either Clermont Auvergne of Leinster, but the last-minute score by CJ Stander emulated the sheer defiance that this season has represented for the Irish province in their most difficult of years.
Pre-match suspicions that Conor Murray, the injured Irish scrum-half, could make a surprise last-minute return to the line-up failed to materialise, and with Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus admitting on Friday that his shoulder nerve damage could take another three weeks to heal, his British and Lions Irish hopes remain very much in the balance.
Murray also wasn’t involved five weeks ago, when England saw their Six Nations Grand Slam dreams dashed here by Ireland, and Leinster did the double two weeks later when they sent Aviva Premiership leaders Wasps out of the Champions Cup, also at the Aviva Stadium. So Munster must have been licking their lips on the drive to Dublin, with the chance to seal the Irish hat-trick over English sides and reach their first final since lifting the trophy in 2008.
The first half had a remarkable feel of déjà vu to it. Munster dominated possession and had more chances to cross the whitewash, yet couldn’t quite get over the line. Saracens managed to do something that England couldn’t in breaking into the 22 and setting up a clear scoring chance, only for the ever reliable Richard Wigglesworth to spurn it.
Munster on the other hand were knocking on the Sarries door repeatedly, but for all their efforts they had just three points to show for it at the break. Roared on by a partisan 50,000 crowd that resembled a sea of red, good pressure gave Tyler Bleyendaal his first shot at goal from in front of the posts, a simple three points.
The first surprise was that would prove the end of Munster’s scoring in the opening half after just seven minutes, and the second was that Saracens weren’t ahead four minutes later. A clever kick from Farrell over the head of Keith Earls forced the wing to kick into touch on his own 10m, and Sarries took clean ball off the top and spread left. Billy Vunipola ran the decoy, taking the ball to the line before pivoting it back to Farrell, and the England fly-half sent the ball through Michael Rhodes, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and eventually Sean Maitland out wide. The Scotland wing drew in full-back Simon Zebo, before sending the try-scoring pass to Richard Wigglesworth inside him.
That’s what should have unfolded, but instead the pass to Wigglesworth, slightly above his head, was dropped and the chance gone.
Shortly before that, Ashton was penalised by the French referee, Romain Poite, for tackling Bleyendaal in the air, and after Farrell got Sarries on the board with a penalty after Andrew Conway failed to roll away in the ruck, Maitland was guilty of taking out the Munster wing when he was in the air. Jackson Wray would not be so lucky.
As scrum-half Duncan Williams darted from the base, Wray’s shoulder hit him in the head, and though Poite accepted that the half-back was slipping as he went into contact, it was still dangerous and off Wray trotted to the sin-bin. But Sarries went into resist mode, and brilliant defence led to a pressure-relieving penalty courtesy of the Vunipolas, Mako making the tackle before Billy won the ball.
Farrell would get his second shot at goal in the 33rd minute, partly due to his own work, as his tap tackle on Bleyendaal caused the South African to knock on and, from the ensuing scrum, Vincent Koch pressured Dave Kilcoyne into collapsing to allow Farrell to put the reigning champions ahead before the break.
Saracens started the second half much stronger, but 10 minutes in they were guilty of wasting not one but two chances to cross the whitewash. The first, like Wigglesworth’s opportunity in the first half, came off lineout ball and again it was a pivot in midfield that released Farrell. He in turn fed Goode, but the full-back’s pass to Ashton was behind the wing and his chance to sprint over and break Vincent Clerc’s record of 36 European tries went begging.
Just two minutes later, it was George Kruis beating the turf in anger, the lock’s smart burst through the heart of the ruck drawing an excellent tackle from replacement flanker Jean Deysel that proved enough to force the Lion-in-waiting to knock the ball on as he reached out to score.
But the floodgates couldn’t hold out, and after two flowing moves off the lineout, it was the trusty drive and maul that did the damage for Sarries. Good pressure forced Bleyendaal into a poor clearance kick, and after rumbling forward all of 20 metres, the ball came to halt just a yard short. Wigglesworth recycled, and he found Mako Vunipola, with Wray assisting, to drive over two backs in Keith Earls and Jaco Taute. The prop charged over to score with Poite happy to award the try despite suspicions over the grounding and Farrell’s conversion made the score 13-3 in Sarries’ favour.
Bleyendaal’s difficult afternoon would get harder when he missed a relatively straight-forward penalty after replacement Schalk Burger was penalised in the ruck a minute shy of the hour, and Farrell would make him pay by extending the lead to 16-3 after Jon Ryan collapsed the scrum under pressure from Mako Vunipola.
13 points down with 15 minutes remaining, Munster gambled and went for it, with penalties going to the corner and the ball being thrown around, sometimes with reckless abandon, and it cost them. Turnover ball in midfield saw Farrell kick deep, and the charging Ashton tackled Conway on his own 22. The ball again appeared on the Saracens side of the maul and Farrell delicately kicked a chip in behind that allowed Chris Wyles, on in his first appearance for three months due to injury, to win a collision with Zebo, overpower Bleyendaal and dot the ball down to score with help from Burger.
There was enough time for Farrell to add his fourth penalty, before the Saracens defence finally cracked and allowed CJ Stander to score a try in the final minute after a tap and go penalty on the 5m line. It was too little, too late though, and the reigning champions are off to Edinburgh to defend their crown.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute (Francis Saili, 56), Rory Scannell, Keith Earls (Darren Sweetnam, 64); Tyler Bleyendaal (Ian Keatley, 72), Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin, 53), Niall Scannell (Marshall, 61), John Ryan (Stephen Archer, 64), Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland, Peter O'Mahony (Dave O’Callaghan, 53), Tommy O'Donnell (Jean Deysel, 51)l, CJ Stander
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch (Alex Lozowski, 75), Brad Barritt, Sean Maitland (Chris Wyles, 63); Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth (Ben Spencer, 72); Mako Vunipola (Titi Lamositele, 72), Jamie George (Schalk Brits, 51), Vincent Koch (Petrus du Plessis, 72), Maro Itoje (Jim Hamilton, 75), George Kruis, Michael Rhodes (Schalk Burger, 56), Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola
Ref: Romain Poite (Fra)
Att: 49, 658