BY allowing Saracens to leave Thomond Park with a losing bonus point, Munster, who won 10-3, might have sealed their fate: it keeps alive the Londoners’ hopes of a European quarter-final.
The Thomond Park home tie, a capacity attendance, a majestic atmosphere, and an opposition deprived of many of their first team players all suited Munster.
Munster must thank the forensic accountants in the Gallagher Premiership for discovering that Saracens had unashamedly flaunted the agreed wage cap. Saracens were found guilty, fined £5.6m, and deducted 35 points. They are backed into a corner. They must try to remain in the top flight of English rugby, while also trying to remain competitive on the European stage.
Considering the weakened team Mark McCall had selected to travel to Limerick on Saturday, Saracens have prioritised remaining in the Premiership this season, which is fantastic news for Racing 92, Ospreys and Munster.
In games of this nature, the first 20 minutes are spent pulling and dragging, with both sides looking for possible weaknesses to exploit. The forwards will look for the arm wrestles to see whose biceps are bigger and the backs will be determining if there are any scaredy-cats in the opposing defensive lines. Only then can you truly determine who has the upper hand. In this case, the sides were reasonably matched.
The purest amongst us would have expected Munster to dominate from the off, but this so-called second-string Saracens side was not in the mood to play along. For some of these fringe players, it was an opportunity to impress and they didn’t disappoint.
Heading in at half-time, Munster just about deserved their ten 10-3 advantage, which was down to their dogged resilience in dealing with the visitors’ gigantic ball-carriers. It was bodies-on-the-line time for Munster’s back-row, when the 6’ 8”, 20-stone Will Skelton came hurtling towards them with his size-19 boots.
Saracens will be furious with the amount of mistakes they made, especially when the goal line was within touching distance. If they had just trusted in their systematic pounding of Munster’s first-up tacklers, they would have reached the try-line. Maybe it was that this changed side has not experienced a cauldron like Thomond Park and the Saracens players found themselves suffering from white line fever.
Ben Spencer, who occupied the number-nine jersey for the visitors, didn’t have his best game and instead of controlling the tempo when it needed stabilising, he allowed Munster to isolate the Saracens ball-carriers and turn over possession at key moments.
The inclement weather in the second-half may have contributed in helping McCall’s side obtain that vital bonus point, albeit the weather doesn’t win or lose games for you. It’s how you deal with it that determines the winners.
Normally, a little rain falling on Thomond Park is welcome. However, on this occasion and especially because of how Munster are trying to play a more inclusive, running format, the wet ball didn’t suit either side and the game turned into a non-event.
Most of the second-half was played between the two ten-yard lines and neither side could hold onto the ball in order to build up a significant amount of phases.
Defences are so well-organised these days that unless there is a missed tackle or some kind of misunderstanding in a defensive structure, it is extremely difficult to find gaps that can be exploited.
Saracens had the wind at their backs, but because of the constant rain, they couldn’t use it as most sides do. If they had Owen Farrell pulling the strings and directing his forward around the paddock, things might have been a whole lot different.
Saracens also couldn’t launch strong substitutions from the bench and so couldn’t squeeze the remaining life out of their challengers. It is not unusual for Mark McCall to have six or seven full-capped internationals to call upon, when fresh legs are required.
That neither side scored in the second-half signifies just how poor a spectacle this game was, and the visitors will be by far the happier.
The sending-off of Arno Botha was particularly cruel, considering the clock was showing red, and I really don’t think there was any intent in his actions.
Hopefully, his ban will be at the lower end of the scale.
So, as it stands, Munster’s fate is still in their own hands. However, with two away games, against Racing 92 and Saracens, and a home tie against the Ospreys, to come, I just can’t see them having enough points in the bag to progress.
I would think that Saracens will go full metal jacket next week and Munster will simply not be able to deal with their power, pace, and ruthlessness at home.
Things can change very quickly in sport and Munster are the masters of surprises, but their two remaining trips on the road might just be that little bit too awkward to navigate and that losing bonus point, which Sarries took away on Saturday, will be the sword Munster will fall upon when the totals are totted up.