Saracens vs Munster match report: Chris Ashton turns up the heat

Saracens 33 Munster 10: Tireless wing reminds England of his finishing power in rout of Munster

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The Independent Online

Saracens’ influence in Europe is growing by the season, hand in hand with a remarkable scoring record belonging to Chris Ashton. The wing with the tireless workrate and penchant for a flamboyant finish has been overlooked by England this season but he used the last match before Wednesday’s announcement of the Six Nations Championship squad to plunder a try in each half and take his career total in the European Cup to 27 in 39 matches; or an even more impressive 19 in 22 since he joined Saracens from Northampton in 2012.

Ashton remains unlikely to get a look-in with England against Wales on 6 February, but he and his club had a right to exult in this stunning subjugation of the two-time former European champions. It put Munster out of the quarter-final picture for only the second time in 17 seasons. Saracens are aiming for their fifth quarter-final, including a fourth in a row, and can make sure of it by winning at Clermont next Sunday, although second place in the pool may be good enough.

Munster were harried into errors almost from beginning to end; a dismal tone set by the scrum-half Duncan Williams having a box kick charged down and then being caught in possession to concede a penalty that Owen Farrell kicked for 3-0. Munster missed the experience of the injured Conor Murray at No 9 but Sarries’ line-out suffered from the absence of the suspended young England lock George Kruis.

 

There was a venerable Lion present but, sadly for the reliably vocal Munster contingent in Saracens’ first sell-out crowd of the season, Paul O’Connell was a neutered influence.

Instead the force was with Saracens’ bright young Vunipola brothers. Billy at No 8 galloped like a runaway rodeo charger, while on this and recent form his elder sibling Mako is the finest all-round loosehead prop in England. Critics would ordinarily fret over Mako’s scrummaging powers, but Saracens were brilliant in that department yesterday, too, aside from Billy Vunipola’s control at the base faltering twice during a dodgy spell in the second half that cost his team a bonus point.

This, though, may prove influential or inconsequential. “We know we’re in a situation where we go to Clermont next Sunday, and if we win the match we win the pool,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. “That’s where our focus is.”

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Jacques Burger and Peter O'Mahony clash during Saracens' win over Munster

Third in the Premiership, with a similar win-loss ratio to Munster’s in the Pro 12, Saracens had missed Brad Barritt in midfield since the centre injured a calf playing for England against Australia at the end of November. The return of Barritt for 65 quality minutes here coincided as it almost always does with Saracens’ opponents barely able to reach the 22, never mind cracking the goal-line. In Saracens’ attack there was a nicely-worked try for Chris Wyles on the wing from a midfield scrum in the 21st minute, and another by Ashton, the arch-poacher, five minutes before half-time.

This came from Richard Wigglesworth’s tap-and-go on halfway, from which the scrum-half went to the left and passed via Marcelo Bosch to Wyles who, as he was swarmed on by three Munster defenders, dinked a chip infield for Ashton to run on to.

All the while Farrell, to whom  Barritt’s presence must be like a human comfort blanket, was efficiently nailing two conversions and  three penalties, to one for his opposite number Ian Keatley, and the score was 23-3 at the interval.

Munster had won at Sale earlier in the pool after trailing by 16 at the same stage, but they built no momentum here as the penalty count against them ticked upwards and the prop James Cronin went to the sin- bin after 65 minutes.

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Billy Vunipola evades the clutches of Dave Foley

This was around the time of Sarries’ marginal wobble. They asked Farrell to go for goal with a penalty that he missed on 62 minutes, when it might have been time to push for a third try from a line-out. Then they went for a line-out when a scrum might have been the better call, with Cronin off the field, only to fumble away possession with a knock-on. Add in the ball squirting away twice off Billy Vunipola’s left boot in five-metre scrums and there was a sense that Saracens could have done better, however harsh that verdict.

All Munster managed for themselves was a try at the posts by Denis Hurley after Peter O’Mahony’s break from a line-out, converted by Keatley, before Ashton’s flamboyant finish from Jamie George’s pass with seven minutes remaining.

“It’s disappointing we didn’t fire a shot,” said Munster’s head coach Anthony Foley. With Ulster out, the Irish challenge this season is left in the hands of Leinster.

Line-ups:

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (B Ransom, 75), B Barritt (C Hodgson, 65), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 65); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 68), J George (B Sharman, 75), P du Plessis (J Johnston, 68), J Hamilton (M Itoje, 75), A Hargreaves (capt), K Brown (E Joubert, 68), J Burger, B Vunipola.

Munster: F Jones; A Conway, P Howard (K Earls, 48), D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 74); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 75), D Williams; J Cronin (J Ryan, 77), D Casey (E Guinazu, 62), BJ Botha (S Archer, 59), D Foley (B Holland, 75), P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell (Ryan, 68-77), CJ Stander (D O’Callaghan, 28).

Referee: R Poite (France; C Berdos, France 74).

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