Sara­cens make Mun­ster pay for their lack of cre­ativ­ity

Mur­ray’s ab­sence keenly felt as cham­pi­ons run out de­served win­ners

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby - Gavin Cum­miskey atA­viva Sta­dium

Here lies a Cur­rie Cup bat­tle thinly veiled as Euro­pean rugby. South African fin­ger­prints ev­ery­where, the pres­sure cooker at­mos­phere cre­ated by the (reloaded) Red Army was nothing new to these un­yield­ing Sara­cens.

Af­ter soak­ing up Mun­ster’s full frontal of­fen­sive, de­void of nous or cre­ativ­ity, Owen Far­rell and his five other Lions de­liv­ered a clean vic­tory. It could have been worse. Un­forced fum­bles by Richard Wig­glesworth and Ge­orge Kruis, in ei­ther half, meant Sara­cens left two tries be­hind them.

Mun­ster coach Rassie Eras­mus la­belled it a hid­ing. The Spring­bok coach in wait­ing – a few weeks ago he told the Mun­ster play­ers he was stay­ing in Lim­er­ick – also said Sara­cens “were 15-20 points bet­ter than us” but would that have been the case if Conor Mur­ray was out there?

“Tac­ti­cally,” Eras­mus con­ceded, “there is a lot we can im­prove upon . . . There was a men­tal pres­sure they put on us and they squeezed the life out of us.”

Mun­ster missed their pri­mary de­ci­sion-maker on so many lev­els. The half­backs kicked poorly yet reg­u­larly. Their bulls ca­reered and crashed into an un­break­able Sara­cens wall, pro­vid­ing Brad Bar­ritt, Michael Rhodes, Maro Itoje and Kruis with the sac­ri­fi­cial CJ Stander, who they smashed back­wards with a fe­ro­cious phys­i­cal­ity to keep them on track for the dou­ble-dou­ble.

All the while Tyler Bley- en­daal cut a lonely fig­ure in the pocket as Dun­can Williams rigidly ad­hered to pre-planned pro­to­cols. They not only lacked ex­pe­ri­ence, they were nowhere near the qual­ity re­quired to mas­ter­mind a vic­tory over Mark McCall’s bril­liantly ef­fi­cient Sara­cens.

Hand-cuffed to game plan

It is hardly the fault of the 31-year-old re­serve nine. No Ir­ish scrumhalf has ever pos­sessed Mur­ray’s poise com­bined with head-swiv­el­ling abil­ity to change tack when split-sec­ond op­por­tu­ni­ties present them­selves de­spite snarling cranes, Itoje and Kruis, loom­ing over­head.

Hand-cuffed to the game plan, Williams box-kicked 12 times be­fore the 50-minute mark. Sara­cens had done their home­work, dis­rupt­ing the left footer’s flight path enough for Billy Vu­nipola to gather and counter. Two punts sailed out on the full yet de­spite these painfully ob­vi­ous fail­ings, Mun­ster ploughed on.

“We wouldn’t change tac­tics,” said Eras­mus when of­fered a mulligan, “but we would adapt quicker to the way they changed the game. We kept ex­actly the same game plan be­cause it was work­ing. We just missed a penalty kick and didn’t score a few maul tries.

“When they started to kick to the cor­ners and re­ally started to put pres­sure on us in our 22 . . . we should have kicked it back long or run if it was on. That’s what we didn’t handle well.”

The fact re­mains that Mun­ster’s cre­ative core was un­able to grasp this dire need for in­ven­tion when en­trenched in the bat­tle. Bleyen­daal’s restarts, and the re­sult­ing chase, proved se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing at mo­ments when Mun­ster des­per­ately needed to ratchet up the heat.

In ret­ro­spect, min­utes 25-35 proved sem­i­nal. A bril­liant Vu­nipola steal over a grounded Niall Scan­nell was the be­gin­ning of Mun­ster fail­ing to cap­i­talise on Jack­son Wray’s sin-bin­ning for stiff-arm­ing Williams. Zero points were regis­tered dur­ing this pe­riod, a mal­func­tion­ing maul did not help, while the ping-pong­ing ap­proach pre­vailed un­til Far­rell’s tap-tackle on Bleyen­daal.

Itoje did not hide his de­light as Sara­cens packed down for the scrum, dead cen­tre and 30 me­tres out, which re­sulted in Vin­cent Koch forc­ing Dave Kil­coyne into “hing­ing”. Far­rell made it 6-3 but from the restart, Vu­nipola slipped the at­ten­tions of Taute, An­drew Con­way and Niall Scan­nell to rum­ble 50 me­tres down­field.

The game was by no means gone but, have no doubt, Sara­cens broke Mun­ster at source in the sec­ond half. Stander, run­ning on an in­jured an­kle, was sup­posed to play 50 min­utes but had to go all 80 when a bat­tered Tommy O’Donnell was forced off. Jean Dey­sel ar­rived and promptly cracked his ribs try­ing to halt Kruis.

Then, sec­onds later, Peter O’Ma­hony suf­fered a sick­en­ing head blow tack­ling Mako Vu­nipola. Laid out on the grass, the cap­tain rose to shrug off the medic, re-en­ter­ing the line.

Con­cus­sion

Ro­main Poite went over to in­spect O’Ma­hony, say­ing “HIA – re­place­ment six red,” be­fore the in­jury was re­layed to the me­dia as “blood” un­til Eras­mus con­firmed a con­cus­sion post-match.

From the re­sult­ing Mun­ster scrum on their five-me­tre line, Bleyen­daal sliced the ball into touch per­ilously close to his own try-line. The li­ne­out drive was col­lapsed inches short but the sec­ond phase saw Mako Vu- nipola bat­ter through.

Far­rell’s con­ver­sion made it 13-3 but the 45,658 crowd wit­nessed Mun­ster’s re­fusal to go qui­etly. They pounded into Sara­cens and when Schalk Burger raced off­side Poite of­fered Bleyen­daal a chance to make it 13-6. He missed.

The Sara­cens scrum, and unerring Far­rell, made it 16-3 on 63 min­utes. Bleyen­daal all but waved the white flag by drop­ping a goal, which bounced off the lower post, af­ter his pack ran clean out of ideas fol­low­ing 18 pun­ish­ing phases that could not breach the Sara­cens 22.

A calami­tous two min­utes fol­lowed, as Zebo then Con­way were dis­pos­sessed, be­fore Far­rell rolled a sump­tu­ous grub­ber for Chris Wyles to twist over.

PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID ROGERS/GETTY

Billy Vu­nipola of Sara­cens makes a break dur­ing the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi fi­nal against Mun­ster at the Aviva Sta­dium on Satur­day.

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