Saracens off to Heineken Champions Cup final after tense win over Munster
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Saracens 32 Munster 16
Billy Vunipola kept himself in the spotlight with a man-of-the-match performance as Saracens booked their Heineken Champions Cup final place with a 32-16 win over Munster.
The England man’s outspoken comments in the aftermath of Israel Folau’s own volatile thoughts earned condemnation from many quarters.
But after his public apology, his try was enough to seal Saracens’ progress after a nervy and tense semi-final at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
Mike Rhodes got the other try for the Men in Black with Owen Farrell landing six penalties and converting both.
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Darren Sweetnam’s second-half score had threatened to ignite a Munster fightback but ultimately the north London side are the ones to head to Newcastle for the May 11 final.
Saracens may have opted for a lot of experience but their plans would have been thrown into somewhat of a spin with the exit of Sean Maitland around 30 minutes before kick-off.
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However, that experience was littered through the team and it meant a start for David Strettle with Alex Lewington filling his place on the bench.
But from the very first whistle it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be a try-fest.
Defences ruled from the word go and only lapses in and around the breakdown brought chances.
Farrell got his first sight of the posts as early as the second minute, even if one wag in the crowd did his best to break his concentration with a witty comment that broke the deathly silence.
Tyler Bleyendaal levelled it up a few minutes later as Munster slung the ball first one way then the other in a vain attempt to break through the black wall but slowly Saracens gained the upper hand.
Andrew Conway had to make a tremendous mark right on his own try-line to stop Liam Williams from grabbing an opening try and then Strettle was bundled into touch five metres short.
Farrell kept the scoreboard ticking over though with another two successful kicks.
However, backed by their noisy supporters Munster found their way back to level terms.
First Maro Itoje went off his feet, Bleyendaal slotting the kick, and with three minutes to go to half-time Saracens went offside and with the ball little more than two metres inside the Men in Black’s half, and 15m in from the right touchline, scrum-half Conor Murray kept his cool to squeeze it inside the post and over the bar.
Sarries got their noses in front again though right on the whistle as Farrell made it four from four after a deliberate knock-on.
It was a tense, ephemeral lead but it suddenly grew in importance three minutes after the restart when Rhodes found a gap wide on the left.
And it signalled a dominating period in the possession stats for Sarries who went through numerous phases on two separate occasions.
It brought two more penalties for Farrell and with it a 16-point lead.
Munster had to throw caution to the wind and twice they opted to kick for the corner instead of at the posts.
The second time saw a number of crashing drives towards the line, most notably from Chris Farrell.
But a whistle gave Saracens a scrum and looked to be a crucial moment in the course of the tie.
And it almost was, although not in the way first thought.
Munster’s forwards delved way down into their reserves though to drive Saracens off the ball from the resulting scrum and when the ball went right, an Alex Goode slip allowed Darren Sweetnam to slide into the corner.
JJ Hanrahan’s conversion was good and from a position of seemingly relative comfort, suddenly there was just nine points in it.
It definitely had an effect of the Men in Black with even the almost German-efficient Farrell sending a relatively easy kick for him wide of the posts.
He also sliced a kick straight to Munster to end one other attack but they were able to send a roar of relief out of their fans as Vunipola scored the crucial try.
He looked like he would be held up but he still had the wherewithal to stick the ball in a big bear paw and extend it down to the ground.
The celebrations as Farrell lined up the conversion did little to lift his popularity in the eyes of the Munster fans as did the announcement of his man-of-the-match award.
Saracens’ fans, however, were delighted and whether that was mixed with relief, it didn’t matter. All roads for them now lead to the Toon.
Saracens: M.Vunipola, George, Lamositele, Itoje, Kruis, Rhodes, Wray, B.Vunipola, Spencer, O.Farrell, Williams, Barritt, Lozowski, Strettle, Goode.
Replacements: Gray, Barrington, Koch, Skelton, Burger, Wigglesworth, Tompkins, Lewington.
Tries: Rhodes 43, B.Vunipola 72. Conversions: Farrell 43, 72. Penalties: Farrell 2, 18, 27, 40, 48, 54. Yellow card: Koch 77.
Munster: Kilcoyne, N.Scannell, Ryan, Kleyn, Beirne, O’Mahony, O’Donoghue, Stander, Murray, Bleyendaal, Sweetman, R.Scannell, C.Farrell, Conway, Haley.
Replacements: Marshall, Loughman, Archer, Holland, Botha, Mathewson, Hanrahan, Goggin.
Tries: Sweetnam 61. Conversions: Hanrahan 61. Penalties: Bleyendaal 10, 31, Murray 37.
HT: Saracens 12 Munster 9.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).