South African flank Michael Rhodes scored a try to help Saracens defeat Munster 32-16 in their European Champions Cup semi-final in Coventry on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
The English club will now compete in their fourth Champions Cup final in six seasons. They will take on either Leinster or Toulouse, who meet on Sunday.
This was a pulsating encounter from start to finish. It had everything – relentless attacking plays, unyielding defending, brutal contesting of the breakdown and effective tactical kicking.
Saracens started strongly and had Munster on the ropes. But after absorbing all the early pressure, the Irish club pegged Saracens back to get back in the contest. However, a solid start to the second half saw Sarries score 13 straight points in as many minutes to turn the game and result in their favour.
The intensity and animosity between the teams were almost tangible. Saracens camped in the Munster half of the field, but their attempts at the line were constantly repelled by high-quality one-on-one defending from Munster. Ultimately, they had to forsake going for a try and allow Owen Farrell, who top-scored with 22 points from the tee, to kick them into a 9-3 lead.
Munster grew into the game and successfully put the pressure back on Saracens, who conceded a succession of penalties. This saw Tyler Bleyendaal and Conor Murray combine to help the visitors draw level at 9-9.
But Saracens would regain the lead just before the break when Munster captain Peter O’Mahoney was penalised for a deliberate knock-on, and Farrell booted his fourth penalty.
Saracens made a blistering start to the second stanza, but the Munster defence had no answer. Rhodes’ try and two further Farrell penalties made it 25-9 after 53 minutes.
Darren Sweetnam scored after Saracens made a mess of a defensive 5m scrum, which breathed life into Munster’s challenge, but their hopes were crushed soon after.
Billy Vunipola, who had been subjected to relentless jeers from the crowd following his pledge of support for the under-fire Israel Folau, scored to secure a place in the final for Saracens. A couple of searing runs by Liam Williams and David Strettle got Sarries close, and from there they went wide for Vunipola to barge over from close range.
Saracens – Tries: Michael Rhodes, Billy Vunipola. Conversions: Owen Farrell (2). Penalties: Farrell (6).
Munster – Try: Darren Sweetman. Conversion: JJ Hanrahan. Penalties: Tyler Bleyendaal (2). Conor Murray.
Saracens – 15 Alex Goode, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Mike Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Titi Lamositele, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle.
Munster – 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Darren Sweetnam, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Dan Goggin.