Munster cut down to size after Fraser wreaks havoc
Saracens 19 Munster 13
Vicarage Road and atmosphere? The two go together like Eric Pickles and salad, or the Conservatives and popularity. Yet there was quite a buzz inside the semi-derelict hovel in downtown Watford today when the double European champions came huffing and puffing across the Irish Sea and while most of the noise was made by the hordes of visiting supporters – somehow, they managed to make themselves heard above a sound system set up specifically to drown them out – it was Saracens who drew inspiration from the decibels to register a first ever Heineken Cup victory over the men from Limerick.
Defeat at Thomond Park eight days previously had left Steve Borthwick's team in an awkward place: on top of Pool One, but deeply vulnerable. Had they lost again here, Munster would have taken charge of the group and left the peripatetic Londoners facing a sticky visit to France for a meeting with a rejuvenated Racing Métro – a side every big as ambitious and Saracens and, rumour has it, even wealthier.
Saracens took the view that such a defeat was not an option: they stacked their line-out, which had unravelled alarmingly in the first game, by playing the 22-year-old lock George Kruis out of position on the blind-side flank, and went after Munster in the scrums. And in the rucks, and the mauls, and in the air.
In fact, they went after them anywhere and everywhere in an effort to confront, provoke and destabilise – tactics that were at the very heart of the Irish province's own game-plan when they were the dominant force in the tournament in the middle years of the last decade.
Munster were not blessed with the best of fortune. After losing the much talked-about prop Dave Kilcoyne to illness before kick-off – "He's probably the most influential loose head in Ireland in terms of the added value he gives around the pitch," said their coaching director Rob Penney – they suffered a second blow when the attacking full-back Felix Jones limped towards the sideline at the end of a fiery first quarter.
Within a minute of his departure, Saracens claimed the opening try through David Strettle after the cleverest of delicate little grubber kicks from the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, and while the score was quickly cancelled out when James Downey intercepted the most generous of passes from Owen Farrell and freed Doug Howlett to the line, it served to reinforce the Premiership club in their belief that this could be their day after four bitter disappointments at the hands of Munster stretching back to the 1999-00 campaign.
Penney struck a philosophical note as he reflected on Strettle's try. "It was no accident that it was scored when it was," he said. "With Felix coming off we had to reorganise, and there was a slight disconnect in the backfield while we sorted out who was covering space and who was supporting who. Tight games like these hinge on that kind of thing: some disorganisation on one side, a big play from a good player on the other. Wigglesworth did well."
Not that Saracens were given anything else for free. They were behind 13-10 late in the third quarter and while Farrell, not at his most accurate from the kicking tee, pulled himself together sufficiently to nail three crucial last-quarter penalties to drag his side over the finishing line, the home side had to sweat blood to earn those opportunities for the England outside-half. It was all about pressure: the kind of pressure applied by the vigorous young flanker Will Fraser, who fought a battle royal with the brick-hard Peter O'Mahony and managed to outlast him – a personal victory he may one day come to see as a rite of passage.
Fraser caused all manner of havoc off an advancing Saracens scrum to give Farrell the first of those shots at the sticks, and then, with four minutes left on the clock, forced Simon Zebo into clinging on to the ball on the deck for just a split-second too long. In between times, the back-rower spent 10 minutes kicking his heels in the cooler after being sentenced for a high tackle on Howlett. It was at that point that the Saracens spirit came surging to the surface.
Ronan O'Gara, the Lions outside-half who, like Farrell, did not have the best of afternoons with the boot, used the penalty call against Fraser to give Munster an attacking line-out deep in the home 22. Now a man short – and a good man, at that – Saracens knew their chances of victory were at serious risk and fairly tore into the Irishmen as they rumbled towards the line, driving them back fully 20 metres in 90 seconds-plus of sustained physical sacrifice.
At the end of that little process, O'Gara had no choice but to make do and mend by dropping for goal. He missed.
"We showed real character there," commented Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director. "At the interval, we felt we'd had the better of things but the scoreboard said 10-all. It was still very close when we went a man short and the commitment we showed was exceptional. I'd like to think it's a coming-of-age performance for us."
A contest on this scale of ferocity – the old "no quarter asked or given" chestnut does not begin to do it justice – is exactly what helped the Heineken Cup come of age many moons ago, before sides as powerful as these two combatants were serious contenders for the silverware.
Together with compelling weekend games in venues as far flung as Treviso and Dublin, Swansea and Belfast, it helped the tournament show itself in the best possible light after an unusually flat opening three rounds.
Not even the English clubs, so often the malcontents of the European rugby scene, can fail to recognise its grandeur – even though Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman, took the chance presented by yesterday's occasion to suggest, in a roundabout way, that an Anglo-South African competition might be on the cards.
The only way that will happen is if the Heineken Cup stops happening. And on that happy note...
Scorers: Saracens: Try Strettle; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 4. Munster: Try Howlett. Conversion O'Gara; Penalties O'Gara 2.
Saracens: A Goode (C Wyles 61); C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 51); R Gill (M Vunipola h-t), S Brits (J Smit 60), M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, G Kruis, W Fraser, K Brown.
Munster: F Jones (L O'Dea 19); D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W Du Preez (M Horan 70), M Sherry, B J Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, D Ryan, Dave O'Callaghan, P O'Mahony (P Butler 65), J Coughlan.
Referee: J Garces (France).
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