The champions are not quite out, but that age-old chestnut about attentions turning to domestic matters might long ago have been applied to Saracens this season. They take a bonus point in defeat from a rain-lashed Thomond Park, where far more experienced outfits than this have suffered many a rude humiliation. A resounding win next week at home to this same Munster outfit would keep them in touch at the top of Pool 4. What manner of line-up will welcome the Irishmen to that?
Conditions deteriorated so much that the faithful here had to endure a scoreless second half. Munster relied on a first-half try by that most faithful of all the denizens around here, captain Peter O’Mahony, to secure the points. It was the bare minimum they required to maintain the challenge to Racing 92.
Arno Botha was shown a red card at the death to spoil the night somewhat, for an elbow into the neck of Nick Tompkins as he carried into the latter’s tackle. Whatever the result, this will not be a fondly remembered match for the locals.
Saracens, though, might consider a bonus point a good night’s work. They insist they are taking the defence of their title seriously, but the impression that they feel they have more important battles to fight on the home front was reinforced by another less-than-full-strength selection. It is possible to get into trouble for not picking your best side in this competition. Saracens probably feel they can’t get into much more trouble than they already have, so will take the risk.
All told, they did well to turn round to inherit the insistence of a vicious wind just those seven points behind. Any champion side, however staffed, can be guaranteed a feisty welcome in Limerick. This was no different – for 40 minutes anyway. What’s more, Munster, whose attack is now overseen by Stephen Larkham, are more than just the elemental force of yore.
Keith Earls and Andrew Conway saw plenty of ball down either flank in the first half and had Saracens on the turn time and again. All the harder, then, to regroup and face the more traditional battering at close quarters that is never far away here. That sole try was illustrative, Earls worked clear by a beautiful flat pass from Rory Scannell, before Conor Murray sent O’Mahony crashing over in classic fashion for a 10-0 lead on the half-hour.
Beyond that, Saracens’ defence, well organised whatever the personnel, held firm in the wind. A Ben Spencer penalty just before the break kept the visitors in touch.
They were grateful for the wind at their backs in the second half, as a cold rain thickened into Munster faces. The second half degenerated accordingly. Both sides struggled to hold on to the ball or find their targets from hand or boot. Spencer hit the post with a penalty for the second time in the match, and players as fabled as Murray and Maro Itoje were flustered into mistakes.
As if to rile the locals further by their disrespect, Mark McCall showed no compunction in introducing his bench, which really was raw, early in the final quarter while the match was still there to be won, or the bonus point lost. As the minutes ticked slowly on, it became clear that such a point was the sum total of the champions’ hope or ambition.
The red card for Botha helped Saracens to a square inch of the moral high ground for once. But the boos that resounded around Thomond Park might just as easily have been for the quality of the rugby on this wet, grim night as for our favourite pantomime villains.