AVIVA STADIUM, Dublin — Saracens’ defence has now become a rugby art form. It is a remorseless beast, the least charitable blockade in northern hemisphere domestic rugby, and was the basis for their semifinal triumph at the Aviva Stadium in front of the thousands of Munster fans.
In a game dominated by kicking, and targeting opposition numbers — it was one gunboat attacking another — Munster blinked first.
Even Mako Vunipola had a kick in the first half; typically for the brilliant Vunipolas, it found touch with wonderful accuracy.
His brother Billy was Saracens’ other best player. They really are a special set of siblings. Munster will wonder how they managed to have the bulk of territory and possession yet only return three first-half points.
Saracens, in turn, squandered a trio of try-scoring opportunities before Mako Vunipola eventually breached Munster’s line in the 54th minute. Munster never recovered despite their last-minute score through CJ Stander.
This was meant to be Munster’s afternoon. Since that tragic day in October when Anthony Foley died, they have won 20 out of 22 matches; inspired by their late, brilliant coach it seemed like they had a pre-destination about this campaign.
Their supporters outnumbered Saracens’ 50 to one in Dublin, it was wall-to-wall red with the noise emanating from their fans the sort that gives their team about three extra men.
The passion vibrates through you, making the pitch a claustrophobic affair. But Saracens are on another level to anyone in Europe at present.
Munster came to the Aviva to put Saracens under pressure through Tyler Bleyendaal and Duncan Williams’ boot coupled with Simon Zebo’s — who was fantastic — ability under the high ball.
But the kicking started with accuracy but slowly descended into wayward efforts, with Bleyendaal’s cross-pitch nudges becoming predictable. Alex Goode waited, caught, cleared.
Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth, in turn, kept theirs on the mark and meant, in the second-half, Munster spent most of the 40 minutes looking back to their own tryline as they attempted to field the hanging kicks and darts into the corner.
How Munster missed Conor Murray. Rassie Erasmus’ side started well and should have scored in the opening throes of the match but an inability to convert in the red zone, and punish Saracens when down to 14 men with Jackson Wyles sin-binned left the door ajar.
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Saracens then got a foot in it through Owen Farrell’s boot and Vunipola and Chris Wyles then smashed it down.
It will take something truly special to stop them from completing a domestic double this season, as they employed counter attacking tactics to quash Munster attacks before landing their own knockout blow.
Billy and Mako Vunipola were fantastic. Both operated like hybrids, seemingly omnipresent on the pitch and their sizeable frames must have trampled on every blade of grass in this corner of D4.
Billy controlled Saracens’ play in their own 22, and even took a quick lineout when others would have allowed the natural order to pan out.
He outplayed his opposite number Stander, making 72 metres from 16 carries. Mako was again brilliant and he was aided wonderfully by his front-row colleague Vincent Koch who had some game both in the scrum and in turning over loose ball. He was sublime.
Saracens’ bench also meant second-half pressure was never ending. Jamie George was replaced by Schalk Brits, Chris Wyles on for Sean Maitland and Schalk Burger stepping in for Jackson Wray — quality replaced with equals.
English clubs have had a grim time in Ireland this season. On five occasions they have travelled across the Irish sea only to be sent home with their tales planted between their defeated legs.
But Saracens have broken the mould. They have learned from previous setbacks. In 2015 they fell to Clermont in St Etienne, saying afterwards they had struggled to cope with the atmosphere.
But they have adapted, learned and taken their own winning mentality to the next level. Their mental strength and focus in defence is unrivalled in European rugby.
For Munster, attention now switches to the PRO12. Perhaps in the future they will look back on this match as Saracens do to their defeat to Clermont in 2015; one they were perhaps not quite ready for.
They are a fine side, but just lacked that cutting edge when they needed it most. Saracens are now in the third final in four years and will head to Edinburgh as favourites regardless of whether they face Clermont or Leinster.
Expect more of the same; a gameplan built on defence but with the most ruthless ability to score points when a chance arises. They will take some stopping.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY