Munster set up the purists' final

27th Apr 2008, 18:42

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Winning in the wet: Ronan O'Gara clears his lines during the second-half rainstorm

Winning in the wet: Ronan O'Gara clears his lines during the second-half rainstorm

Two years on from that epic win over Biarritz, Munster are once again in Cardiff and against French opposition in a Heineken Cup final, after an 18-16 semi-final win over Saracens in Coventry that sets up the final against Toulouse on May 24.

Two years on from that epic win over Biarritz, Munster are once again in Cardiff and against French opposition in a Heineken Cup final, after an 18-16 semi-final win over Saracens in Coventry that sets up the final against Toulouse on May 24.

After a shaky opening 20 minutes, the men in red scored two tries in the second quarter to give themselves a commanding 15-7 half-time lead, and with wet weather turning the pitch into just the sort of quagmire Munster thrive on, you would have been forgiven for thinking Munster were home and dry, so to speak.

But Saracens rallied, taking on the Munstermen at their own game and with Glen Jackson bringing the score back to 15-13 with 20 minutes to go. Yet the Sarries just couldn't find the cutting edge to nick the win.

Before Munster head to Cardiff though, they might like to have a think. It's all very well protesting that a team that wins even when it is not on its game is playing like a champion, but that will not wash against Toulouse's noblesse magnifique.

From 15-7 up at half-time, and with the weather turning nasty, the normal Munster would have shut up shop and closed the game out, perhaps nicking one or two tries through the forwards late on. This time, they contrived to concede a succession of penalties to allow their opponents back into the game and also to throw away a number of opportunities to take an unassailable lead. Something wasn't quite right all day in the red shirts. They even lost two scrums against the head.

Saracens offered spirit, opportunism and Kameli Ratuvou. The Fijian had a magnificent game, rounding off a superb try after four minutes and making a mockery of the greasy surface at any and every opportunity thereafter. Otherwise though, the Men in Black had their limitations cruelly exposed. There was plenty of control up front, but nobody - bar Ratuvou - to take the ball on at the necessary pace outside. A game that was there for the taking in most neutrals' eyes thus fell by Sarries' wayside.

It was no classic, certainly a step down from Saturday's match. Slippery ball cost both teams a few times, as did the greasy surface. It's nice to play in a bigger stadium on such occasions, but it would have been nicer still to have these two go at each other with some proper sods of turf to dig the heels into as opposed to a hurriedly-smoothed (Coventry played soccer on the pitch on Saturday) and soccer-short grassed pitch.

The two teams might point with indignance at the officiating as a reason for the poor quality, but referees can only officiate what they see. Both teams tried so hard to slow the ball down at every opportunity that referee Nigel Owens ended up simply indulging it with a resigned air at times. Really open play was at a premium.

But the game started with a bang. Jackson grubbered through from his own 22, and Ratouvu picked the ball up at pace outside, beating his man inside. He offloaded to Neil de Kock, who found Adam Powell, but the young centre's wheels were not as fast as Doug Howlett's, and the All Black caught Powell a couple of metres short. Ratouvu, following up, picked the ball off the back of the ruck and scored by the posts. Jackson's conversion handed his team a 7-0 lead after just four minutes.

Munster nearly replied in kind when Lifeimi Mafi broke three minutes later and the ball was swung to Ian Dowling on the left, but the final pass was just adjudged forward. Instead, Munster settled for a penalty by O'Gara to open their account.

Ratouvu made his second telling break down the left, and was within an ace of a try but for a timely intervention by Howlett, spreading his limbs to charge down Ratouvu's kick.

Munster had offered very little by this point - 18 minutes in - and further evidence of a malaise was offered when the Saracens pack wheeled a Munster scrum with confident ease to set up some attacking ball. Munster promptly reminded Saracens who were the European old dogs and who were the puppies, by shoving the Men in Black off the ball.

Then they found some rhythm. Mafi should have used his outside men with a clean break, but the communication between himself and Tipoki broke down. And on 26 minutes, O'Gara spotted Nick Lloyd in his channel, accelerated, dummied, and headed to the line.

The conversion was near the posts, and so it came as some surprise when he missed. So surprising was it for Owens, that he double-checked with the TMO!

Saracens rallied once more, enjoying 12 phases on Munster's 22 before that man Ratouvu finally found a half-gap to take it in. But there was just nobody else to make those breaks, and the move ended in a penalty to Munster. It was tapped, Dowling switched with Howlett, who tore away, and from the ensuing ruck, Alan Quinlan ran in virtually unopposed under the posts. O'Gara made it 15-7, and the half-time whistle blew.

General consensus was that Munster would come out charging, score another, and that would be that. But it was not so. Instead, Munster conceded five unanswered penalties in the third quarter, of which Jackson kicked two to bring his team to within two points.

The last one was a result of two more breaks by Ratouvu, which culminated in a yellow card for Tipoki for killing the ball, and precipitated an extraordinary chain of events.

Two minutes later, Lloyd was sent to the bin for punching, and O'Gara missed a shot at goal. Then Saracens' other prop Cencus Johnston was sin-binned for killing the ball, and O'Gara scored to make it 13-18. But now, Saracens had both props off the field. Cobus Visagie came on despite having been taken off injured, but there were still uncontested scrums. Visagie then went off injured again. From one of the scrums, O'Gara looked to have set up a scoring position with a grubber, but the touch judge caught Mafi offside - a hairline call.

Eventually all the players came back on, and we got on with it again. Jackson made it 18-16 with a penalty after Quinlan had closed the gap at the line-out, leaving Sarries ten minutes to find the killer blow. There was a lot of hard straight running. there was a lot of tackling and furious work at the rucks. There was some deft tactical kicking. But there just was not that extra je ne sais quoi required to break the game, and when Richard Hill - of all people - held on to the ball at a ruck, Dowling kicked to touch and sent a sigh of relief rippling through the red flags.

Man of the match: Only one candidate, Kameli Ratouvu's performance was just brilliant.

Moment of the match: The opening try could, had the weather not intervened, have kicked off a classic.

Villain of the match: "But he had me by the throat," bleated Nick LLoyd. Bless. That does not excuse five hefty punches.

The scorers:

For Saracens:
Try:
Ratuvou
Con: Jackson
Pens: Jackson 3

For Munster:
Tries:
O'Gara, Quinlan
Con: O'Gara
Pens: