In their wisdom the EPCR decided that the Ricoh Arena was the best place to hold a home country semi-final for Saracens on a weekend when trains weren’t running to the area. I’d usually drive to the ground but took the Zeelo coach option at £25. I didn’t buy a ticket with the bulk of my friends I couldn’t justify the £70 for this one, so went for a seat in the corner at £32. It was a shame so much attention was given to who wasn’t at this match, rather than to the actual game itself. I very much doubt Saracens fans will ever outnumber Munster fans, it was certainly no surprise to me there was a lot of red in the stadium!
And so to the match, I was interested to see the stats for each team for the competition so far.
30 TOTAL TRIES 16
903 TACKLES MADE 1132
2921 METRES GAINED 1962
60 PENALTIES CONCEDED 77
1033 PASSES 815
60 TURNOVERS WON 77
Time would tell whether there was anything to take from those stats in this knock out game. Saracens went into this semi-final as the only unbeaten team in this season’s competition.
From my perspective as a Saracens fan this hasn’t been the best, in spite of the fact they sit second in the Premiership table, they’ve lost 5 matches in that competition and haven’t been playing the best rugby in a few of the matches they did win. However up until this point I’d say Saracens had saved their best rugby for the Heineken Champions Cup.
There was a big boost team wise with the return of captain Brad Barritt, something is missing when he isn’t in the starting line up. Mako Vunipola was also back after a long spell out with injury, his contribution really can’t be underestimated, his ability with ball in hand alongside his actual job on the pitch, never ceases to amaze. Sean Maitland on the other hand was counted out pre-game, being replaced by David Strettle. I’m just reading an article in the Independent as I write and they’ve kindly confirmed that eight of the match day squad were a part of the group that started this European foray 7 years ago, losing to Clermont in the quarter-final. The Vunipola brothers were added in 2014 to the team that beat the same team, eventually lifting the trophy in 2015=16 and again the following year.
Munster first won the competition in 2005-06, winning it again in 2007-08, since that time they’ve seen their bug rivals, Leinster win 4 times. They lost Joey Carbery and Keith Earls for this game but had a good deal of strength across the board alongside their iconic captain Peter O’Mahony.
There was a time when as a Saracens fan it would be a dream to beat the likes of Munster, but Saracens have become a giant of European rugby over recent years, raising levels of expectation for their fans.
The first half was all about penalties given away and scored, with Owen Farrell putting Saracens ahead 3 times and Munster pulling back to match them with 2 penalties from Tyler Blayendaal and 1 from Conor Murray. The teams went in with the score on Saracens 12 Munster 9 at half time. As I type the Munster Fly Half’s name it takes me to a comment thrown at me by a Munster fan as Liam Williams, who had a stormer of a game, was in possession of the ball. ‘Where in London’s he from?’ was the shout? I don’t suppose he expected me to answer, but, I just can’t help myself, I asked him if he’d like to discuss some of the players in Irish rugby such as Bundee Aki (A Connacht player)? His was just the first name that came into my head, I’d somehow missed CJ Stander on the pitch and of course Blayendaal too! To be fair he did apologise a while later, but, really?
The first half was a close run affair certainly points wise. Brad Barritt didn’t return after half time, he’d gone down during the first half and didn’t reappear for the setoff half. Nick Tompkins came on as his replacement. This is a player who seems to thrive on the European stage and he didn’t disappoint at the Ricoh.
Some stats for the match, Saracens had 58% possession and 64% of the territory, the forwards battle was immense, this was proper rugby on the big stage. Saracens conceded 8 penalties and Munster 10, there were 2 ‘incidents’ that needed a closer look, one being a Munster player tackled before he’d landed, a very close call and one I’m not sure the officials got right. Saracens were later awarded a penalty themselves in that passage of play. The second I’ll come to later.
Saracens had 65% possession in the second half and they made it count, firstly with a try for Michael Rhodes 4 minutes into the half, before Munster struck back with a try for Darren Sweetnam; this was the second ‘incident’ that warranted further attention from the officials’ Saracens had pushed Munster in the scrum to have the ball come out to Conor Murray, how it came to him was something of a mystery and possibly not legal. But, the try, which was beautifully scored out on the wing, stood.
Saracens had the last word with a try for Billy Vunipola, who’d been boo’ed relentlessly throughout the game by the Munster fans, there was an inevitability to that. I’d really like to think he was kissing his badge to the Saracens fans and not to wind up the Munster fans after a torrid online week caused by his own hand and words.
All in all that resulted in a final scoreline of Saracens 32 Munster 16 and a pice in the final for the team from North London, they’ll face Leinster who beat a resurgent Toulouse. That makes my Golden Ticket bought back in May last year even more of a bargain! This was the best performance I’ve seen from Saracens this season, they’ll need that and more to beat Leinster in Newcastle.