A double double beckons for Saracens. Many teams would have been overwhelmed by the atmosphere generated by a fervently partisan crowd but it takes a higher temperature to melt the European and English champions, who reached their third Champions Cup final in four years by systematically exploiting their greater experience at this level.
It took years of hurt and failure for Saracens to succeed in Europe, as it had for Munster at the start of the 2000s. Where England had failed the previous month against Ireland, trying to play off slow possession – and Wasps had been pressurised into making mistakes by Leinster here in the last round, and losing control – Sarries did not lose their shape or composure, despite spending most of the first half in their open territory, and equalled Leinster’s record of 17 successive matches without defeat in the tournament.
They did not concede a point when Jackson Wray was sent to the sin-bin after 22 minutes for a high tackle, but for all their unyielding qualities in defence, they kept their line intact until the final minute, despite having to make twice as many tackles as their opponents. It was the way they attacked that marked them apart.
It offered a glimpse into how the Lions may play in New Zealand on a tour when they have pledged to resort to power and pace. Saracens were largely narrow in phase play, kicking when possession was slow, and focused on retaining possession. When they were awarded a penalty and kicked to touch, they were at their most dangerous in attack.
While Munster used attacking lineouts to drive mauls, which Saracens dealt with comfortably, even when Wray spent 10 minutes on the sidelines, their opponents exploited the opportunity to run with the ball against a defence that started off 20 metres away. While their two tries in the second half came from a driving maul and a chip to the line, they should have taken the lead after 10 minutes, when a fluent lineout move ended with Richard Wigglesworth knocking 10 metres out with no one in front of him and, at the same point in the second half, Chris Ashton spilled the ball after Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland and Alex Goode had created spaced for the wing with their lines of running and passing.
Munster, despite enjoying 70 per cent of the possession in the first half, struggled to create space. Their No8, CJ Stander, carried the ball 22 times but only made 30 metres, while his opposite number – and fellow Lion-to-be in New Zealand this summer – Billy Vunipola, covered 72 metres in his 23 runs.
The Saracens prop Vincent Koch was named man of the match for his work in the loose and the tight, as the Premiership side, who were shoved backwards in the first two scrums, turned the set-piece to their advantage, but Vunipola showed how significant he will be for the Lions this summer.
It was not just the damage he caused with the ball in hand, starting from the kick-off when he ran through two tacklers, but in defence. There was a period in the second half when Sarries led 16-3 and Munster mounted their final tilt for victory. The crowd, which had not dimmed in its fervour despite a sense of inevitability that had set in when their team had failed to exploit Wray’s absence, roared them on, but every drive seemed to be halted by the broad shoulders of the No8 who, throughout, had no reverse gear.
He lacked match fitness when he was here with England but this time he was at the peak of his powers, even indulging in downfield kicks with his brother, Mako. If there was no doubting the valour and will to win of Munster, they lacked the means to achieve it, missing Conor Murray at scrum-half and losing their captain and Lion, Peter O’Mahony, with a head injury one minute before Saracens scored their first try of the game.
Munster took the lead after 10 minutes through a Tyler Bleyendaal penalty, but it lasted only six minutes before Farrell equalised. They failed to turn territory into points, blowing opportunities just before and after Wray’s yellow card. Their driving maul was repelled and they made no impression on Saracens’ midfield defence. Munster’s one advantage was in the air, where they caught out the holders three times, but Sarries very quickly recovered their shape.
Bleyendaal hit the post with a 30-metre drop goal 13 minutes from time, when his side were 13 points down. An act of desperation then, it would have been a better option at the same period in the opening half, when Munster, for all their possession, were unable to create space or force penalties out of their opponents. It was Saracens who went into the break ahead, against the run of play, when Farrell turned a scrum collapse into three points.
Saracens went on the offensive immediately after the restart. O’Mahony stole a lineout in his 22 to thwart an attack, but – after Ashton had dropped Goode’s pass – Munster lost two back rowers, Tommy O’Donnell and O’Mahony, to injury and struggled to defend a driving maul that ended with George Kruis helping Mako Vunipola over the line.
The mental pressure got to Bleyendaal, who missed a penalty and started making questionable decisions. Farrell’s third penalty put Saracens 13 points ahead before the outside-half’s chip to the line prompted a Simon Zebo fumble and Chris Wyles picked up to score.
Stander’s last-minute consolation try was reward for the home side’s resolution but Saracens’ pursuit of the double double had meant double trouble for Munster.