Rugby Union: Staunton's surge sinks Saracens

Saracens 34 Munster 35
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THE SMOULDERING fires of Munster, whose tradition encompasses historic wins over the All Blacks and Australia, blazed brightly, if a little late, as they pipped Saracens in a thrilling Heineken Cup match at Vicarage Road yesterday.

It was Munster's eighth successive victory this season, the first half- dozen being the ones which took them to Ireland's Inter Provincial Championship, and now two on the trot in the European competition.

And having been thoroughly out-thought, but never out-fought, by Saracens in the first half, they burst into life at the start of the second, scoring two stunning tries.

"We started the second half the way we had wanted to start the first half," said their hooker, Keith Wood, who is on temporary secondment from Harlequins. "We just took off. I think we were more surprised than anyone."

The Munstermen's renowned passion had flared patchily early on and there were isolated eruptions of violence among the forwards. While Saracens' England lock, Danny Grewcock, was wrestling one or two of his opposite numbers, the scrum-half, Nick Walshe, nipped in, scooped up the ball as it rolled clear of the writhing bodies and, leaping over the scrapping players, swooped over the line for Saracens' second try.

Their first had come in the second minute. Mark Mapletoft hoofed the ball deep, Munster ran it into touch, and from the resulting line-out and ruck, Saracens' Argentinian prop, Roberto Grau, picked up and rumbled over.

Saracens were playing like demons at that point, scrapping for everything, and maybe Munster's energies were focused only on the scrapping. In fact only the boot of their fly-half, Ronan O'Gara, kept them in touch.

Saracens' bootman, their fly-half Thierry Lacroix, was also doing his bit. His first penalty was sandwiched by those two tries and he had added another two to go with Mapletoft's conversion of the Walshe touchdown. The London side had seemingly done a lot of the hard work by the interval as well as having established a cushion.

But they were not prepared for the way the Irish side came at them from the restart. "There was one team that came out to play in the second half, and one that stayed in the dressing-room. We were the team in the dressing- room," the Saracens captain, Francois Pienaar, said.

The first score certainly bore that out. Wood ripped the ball out of Saracens' hands and sent O'Gara away. He shipped it on to Michael Mullins, who fed his centre partner, Killian Keane. O'Gara converted. Four minutes later Saracens were sandbagged a second time.

Mapletoft was dispossessed near his own line, Mullins got a toe to the ball and won the race to touch down, and again O'Gara did the honours, that kick nosing Munster ahead. Although Lacroix's fourth penalty restored a Saracens advantage, which was further increased by Jeremy Thomson's try and a fifth goal from the former French fly-half, there could never be any certainty about the outcome.

Munster were a raging inferno in defence and in attack. O'Gara landed a long-range penalty, and Saracens cracked, conceding yet another penalty, and they were slack enough to allow the No 8, Anthony Foley, to take the tap to himself and plunge over the line.

It did not matter that the conversion was missed because the stand-in full-back, Jeremy Staunton, a fly-half by trade, stormed over three minutes from time and O'Gara's conversion did the trick.

All Munster had to do was hold out and that they did, withstanding a series of mammoth scrums close to their line, ever aware that Lacroix was lurking, his right foot cocked and ready for a drop goal attempt. Eventually, though, the heroic forwards won the ball, Munster broke free and suddenly it was all over.

Saracens: Tries Grau, Walshe, Thomson; Conversions Mapletoft, Lacroix; Penalties Lacroix 5. Munster: Tries Keane, Mullins, Foley, Staunton; Conversions O'Gara 3; Penalties O'Gara 3.

Saracens: M Mapletoft; R Constable, J Thomson, K Sorrell, R Thirlby; T Lacroix, N Walshe; R Grau (D Flatman, 61), G Chuter, J White (P Wallace, 63), S Murray (K Chesney, 56), D Grewcock, R Hill (P Ogilvie, 56), T Diprose, F Pienaar (capt; P Ogilvie, 27-28).

Munster: J Staunton; J Kelly, K Keane, M Mullins, A Morgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), J Langford, A Quinlan, A Foley, D Wallace.

Referee: D Mene (France).