Hard­work­ing Sara­cens too savvy for Rassie’s men

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY -

MOST coaches would be happy enough if, on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, their team was a night­mare to play against. If Mark McCall num­bers him­self in that group then more of­ten than not, for him, match day is a happy day. And cer­tainly Sara­cens looked well pleased with them­selves, for not only did their fifth straight Euro­pean semi-fi­nal ap­pear­ance fin­ish in com­fort, it had all the ap­pear­ances of a per­for­mance that started on a lap­top and moved — with only the odd change in punc­tu­a­tion — through to the field.

They will move on the fi­nal in Ed­in­burgh next month need­ing to change very little, re­gard­less of whether it is Cler­mont or Le­in­ster who await them. The bad news for Sar­ries’ dance part­ner that day is that McCall’s team can, when the cir­cum­stances de­mand it, get around the floor as well as stand toe to toe.

Some­times in the count­down to a big oc­ca­sion all the signs are that it will be mem­o­rable for all the right rea­sons. The Aviva was three thou­sand away from ca­pac­ity and we were blessed with per­fect con­di­tions. That the sup­port was hope­lessly lop­sided in Mun­ster’s favour was hardly a sur­prise, and nei­ther did it take from the scene.

McCall had been clear in his com­ments dur­ing the week that since the Vicarage Road days his lads knew how to block out the echo, so an ear-split­ting din would be a lux­ury. Ei­ther way they would cope. And they did.

It’s fair to say that the only pe­riod in which they looked rat­tled was the early part of the open­ing quar­ter, which is not a bad way to be in an 80-minute con­test. Mun­ster started as if they would slap Sara­cens about the chops at the scrum, but soon enough that per­ceived strength would be­come a weak­ness.

And even when Mun­ster were first out of the blocks, with a Tyler Bleyendaal penalty on seven min­utes, the sub­text was that Sar­ries were happy enough to give up three points in­stead of seven.

“I thought our de­fence was ex­tra­or­di­nary,” McCall said af­ter­wards. “There was that set early on where we came away con­ced­ing only three points, which was a re­sult at that point.”

It’s hard to think of an­other team in this hemi­sphere who de­fend with the same level of ag­gres­sion and ac­cu­racy. And they en­joy it.

Against a side like Mun­ster it is es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive, for when they get into the op­po­si­tion 22 they rely al­most exclusively on get­ting around the cor­ner. More of­ten that not there were a few de­fend­ers ready and wait­ing.

In those cir­cum­stances the late try for CJ Stander was not even close to be­ing in the con­so­la­tion class. He had strug­gled to be fit, and his strug­gle didn’t end there. Hav­ing con­sid­ered an ex­ten­sion on his gaff to ac­com­mo­date all the man-of-the-match awards he won’t have ar­gued with it go­ing across the fence to Billy Vunipola. No ar­gu­ments there.

In­deed the only com­plaints from the Mun­ster fans — the un­at­tached will rightly claim it was hard to watch — will be that their team was short Conor Murray, and suf­fered ac­cord­ingly. And that Tyler Bleyendaal had an or­di­nary game in what has been a stel­lar sea­son. At 3-13 ap­proach­ing the hour mark the Kiwi pushed wide a handy enough penalty kick, which summed up his day. If Dun­can Wil­liams had strug­gled with his kick­ing game then Bleyendaal got pre­cious little go-for­ward ball to play with. And as it was, Mun­ster were opt­ing to play most of their rugby straight off nine, to one-off run­ners. Food and drink to Sara­cens.

The stats served only to high­light the frus­tra­tion of the home side. They had nearly two-thirds pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory, and car­ried far more ball. The tone was set in the first half, by the end of which Sar­ries were 6-3 ahead. Owen Far­rell — who was 100 per cent off the tee and not far off that ev­ery­where else — tied the game on 17 min­utes af­ter a very ef­fec­tive starter play af­ter a li­ne­out put Mun­ster un­der se­ri­ous pres­sure.

They were com­fort­able enough too to ride out 10 min­utes mid­way through the half when Jack­son Wray was binned for a high tackle on Wil­liams. Dur­ing that pe­riod Mun­ster lost con­trol of a promis­ing-look­ing maul, and had Niall Scan­nell turned over in the Sara­cens 22 when the away team were at the peak of their de­fen­sive mind­set. Bad omen that.

Far­rell nudged them ahead just be­fore the break with a scrum penalty against Dave Kil­coyne, who car­ried well, and not much changed af­ter the break. In­deed the longer that sec­ond half went on the fur­ther Mun­ster were get­ting from the tar­get. Be­cause it was a low-scor­ing game un­til the last 10 min­utes it would have been mad­ness to rule them out. But their vi­tal signs were look­ing in­creas­ingly weak, bar the odd steal out of touch. But even those two steals didn’t dis­com­mode the away side.

On 54 min­utes Mako Vunipola got over from close-in af­ter heavy pres­sure and Far­rell’s con­ver­sion, to make it 13-3 to Sar­ries, left Mun­ster need­ing a dra­mat-

ic swing. They didn’t get it. Rather they kept on suf­fer­ing, bit by bit, un­til it was all over. They will have no com­plaints.

Ref­eree Ro­main Poite sig­nals for Sara­cens’ sec­ond try of the game, scored by Chris Wyles. Photo: Brendan Mo­ran

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