One of the great games. Again. You can set your timepiece by these Heineken Cup classics, so regularly have they occurred over the last 13 years. Munster, indisputably the finest exponents of European rugby in the British Isles, will meet Toulouse, the best exponents anywhere, in next month's final at the Millennium Stadium after surviving this tourniquet-tight tie in front of a 30,000-plus audience, but the story that demands to be written is the story of Saracens. It will be told in and around North London for ever and a day.
They did not stand a cat's chance in hell. Everyone knew it. Yes, they had beaten a swaggering Ospreys team in the last eight, but that match had been played in their own blue-collar surroundings of Vicarage Road, which the Welshmen struggled to find, let alone understand, and had been dominated by a 35-year-old flanker with a pronounced limp whose ability to play two hard games in a calendar month had long been compromised by repeated breakdowns of the orthopaedic variety. Saracens dragged Richard Hill back on to the pitch yesterday, as they were bound to do, but no one imagined he could mix it with the likes of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy for a full 80 minutes.
As it turned out, Hill did rather more than mix it with Munster's all-international loose trio. He mixed it with everyone who happened to be wearing a red shirt, from Doug Howlett and Rua Tipoki to Jerry Flannery and Paul O'Connell, and as the struggle continued deep into stoppage time, the revered World Cup-winning forward grew more influential rather than less, to the extent that he was central to the final play of the contest – a play that would, had things gone even half to plan, given his side a shot at erasing their two-point deficit and sneaking off with the spoils.
The move was launched by Census Johnston, whose renown as a baby elephant-sized prop is somewhat undermined by the fact that there are smaller fully-grown elephants in the world. Trampling through an undergrowth of Munster tacklers, he offloaded to his fellow Pacific islander, Moses Rauluni, who in turn found the faithful Hill in support. The veteran was instantly swamped by defenders, but as he wrenched away to deliver the crucial piece of possession a few metres short of his opponents' line the referee, Nigel Owens, penalised him for failing to release.
Owens might just as easily have penalised Munster for holding in, thereby giving Glen Jackson a winning shot at goal with the final kick of the match. But he didn't. "I'm not going to stand here and say he should have given it our way," said Hill, whose emotions at close of play were unusually visible. "It was hard, walking off the field: partly because that was the last game I'll play at such a level and partly because it's such a bitter pill for us to take. But take it we must. I'm proud of the way we performed."
Heavily outsupported – once again, the Munster hordes crossed the Irish Sea in their tens of thousands – and guilty of conceding soft tries to Ronan O'Gara and Quinlan in the minutes before the break, Saracens were further undone by a half-time downpour that suited their opponents' armour-clad defensive system. Saracens then made life even more complicated for themselves by losing two props to the sin-bin in the space of four minutes early in the final quarter. Nick Lloyd, nobody's idea of a front-row hitman, unleashed a flurry of punches at Leamy – he told Owens he had been grabbed by the throat, but to no avail – while Johnston was dispatched for bellyflopping over a ruck on his own 22-metre line. O'Gara kicked the penalty to give his side that precious two-point advantage.
"We shot ourselves in the foot there," said the Saracens captain, Neil de Kock, conscious that the lapses of discipline turned a one-man advantage into a one-man deficit. Before Lloyd's little outburst Tipoki, the incendiary Munster centre, had been shown a yellow card for ball-killing. Tipoki could hardly have complained, for he played much of the game from an offside position and might have been packed off early in the piece for a nasty assault on Richard Haughton.
With 14 Munstermen playing 13 Saracens, the writing was on the wall in block capitals. O'Connell, a lock whose work in the tight was very nearly as good as that commonly associated with Martin Johnson and whose ball-carrying was five times as potent as anything the new England manager ever offered, was back to his pre-2005 best and there were flashes of brilliance from Howlett, still one of the best two or three wings in the world despite his leave of absence from All Black duty. Struggling for air as well as numbers, the underdogs were bang up against it.
Yet their Fijian wing, Kameli Ratuvou, redoubled the efforts that had brought him an excellent opening try inside five minutes and succeeded in giving his side a series of footholds in Munster territory. With the scent of an extraordinary turn-up hanging over the arena, Hugh Vyvyan and Paul Gustard threw themselves at the Munster barricades in an effort to give Jackson a sight of the posts in a drop-goal position. If they never quite managed it, they were not far short.
Perhaps, on reflection, Johnston's late rampage was counter-productive, for it obliged the underdogs to gamble everything on the try rather than play Jackson into range. If so, the failure was as glorious as it was heartbreaking.
"The emotion is pure, and it's raw," said a tearful Alan Gaffney as he described the scene in his team's dressing room. Once of Munster himself, the Saracens director of rugby has seen his sport from every angle under the sun. And this angle, let it be said, was the most beautiful, even if it was also the most painful.
Munster: Tries O'Gara, Quinlan; Conversion O'Gara; Penalties O'Gara 2; Saracens: Try Ratuvou; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 3.
Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, R Tipoki, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan (D Ryan, 80), P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy.
Saracens: R Haughton; F Leonelli, K Sorrell, A Powell, K Ratuvou; G Jackson, N de Kock (capt; M Rauluni 80); N Lloyd, M Cairns, C Visagie (C Johnston, 47), H Vyvyan, K Chesney, P Gustard (Visagie 69-70), R Hill, B Skirving (T Ryder, 37).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content