Saracens 33 Munster 10: Four talking points as Billy Vunipola shines
England internationals on top as Sarries monster Munster in Pool 1 to send the Irish province out of the European Champions Cup
Vunipola showcases England credentials
Much of the talk in recent months for England’s number eight shirt has been about Gloucester’s Ben Morgan and Harlequins’ Nick Easter, with a few column inches for Exeter Chiefs man Thomas Waldrom, who leads the Aviva Premiership try-scoring chart this season, but Saracens star Billy Vunipola produced a timely reminder of what he can do with a storming performance on the European stage. Saracens put in a superb team performance, but Vunipola’s immense ball-carrying ability came to the fore as he skittled through Munster defenders with ease to ger Sarries moving forward. He didn’t get on the scoresheet, but that was the only blemish in a man of the match performance in which he came out on top in attack (17 carries for 67 metres) and defence (14 tackles). With Morgan sidelined with a broken leg, it would take an injury or a big gamble from Red Rose head coach Stuart Lancaster to shunt the big man out of the number eight jersey when England take to the Millennium Stadium turf on Friday 6 February.
Strange territory for Munster
Out of the Europe before the quarter-finals. Not something you usually associated with Ireland’s red army, but that is the reality for Anthony Foley and his men with one pool match still to play. It’s only the second time in the history of European competition that it has happened, but perhaps not a surprise after their start to the season. Three defeats in a row from their first five matches in Pool 1 is not up to their usual standard, in fact a first for the club. Had it not been for a last-gasp drop-goal in Round 1 at Sale Sharks, they could be sitting on four defeats from five matches. The upside for the Munstermen is that they can focus their attentions on getting their act together in the Guinness PRO12 and target a top two finish to guarantee a home semi-final. Very much in the league’s top four, the province have been inconsistent this season, losing matches against Edinburgh and Connacht, but comprehensively defeating rivals Leinster, twice. Nice in theory, but the problem may be that rivals Ospreys and Ulster are also out of Europe, while Glasgow Warriors could join them if they can’t get at least nine points from their final two pool matches. While Mark McCall’s Saracens are very much a club on the up in Europe, Munster appear to be going in the opposite direction. Former glories are exactly that.
Ashton brace sends reminder
With England head coach Stuart Lancaster watching this weekend’s matches closely, Sarries wing Chris Ashton scored a timely double ahead of the Six Nations squad announcement on Tuesday. He was the tournament’s top try-scorer last season, and enjoys a phenomenal record of 27 tries in 39 European appaerances for Sarries and Northampton Saints, but has remained on the periphery of the national team in the last 12 months and dropped for the QBE Internationals last November after coming off the bench to score a try in England’s 3-0 series defeaft in New Zealand last summer. Lancaster has a tough decision to make to choose the three or four wingers he fancies to give England the best chance of winning the tournament and there are no shortage of contenders. From last year’s duo Jonny May and Jack Nowell to Bath speedsters Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokodukguni, Wasps dynamic duo Christian Wade and Tom Varndell and Harlequins’ Marland Yarde. There are a lot of players in the mix. Ashton may irk some with his theatrical finishes, which were on show again, but there is no denying his tireless running, speed and deadly finishing, and his international experience could be invaluable to England’s chances.
Errors cost Foley’s men
Munster are famed for dominating big European games, but Saracens have proved time and again that once they get ahead they are very difficult to overturn. Ball-carrying, rucks, set-pieces — the key areas Munster are usually solid at — were desperately poor and allowed Saracens to take control. Even Paul O’Connell, their Mr Dependable, was out of sorts and will be keen to forget this visit to North London. The loss of influential loose forward CJ Stander in the first half didn’t help matters. There is nothing but pride to play for next week when they take on Sale Sharks, but they will need to cut out the penalties after conceding 13, more than three times as many as their opponents. Turnovers may have been more even at 13 to Saracens’ 12, but they further highlight just how Munster failed to get going. Even a second-half try from Denis Hurley was scant consolation after England outside-half Owen Farrell got the scoreboard ticking over in the first half to give the hosts a 23-3 lead at the break. If there was a positive, it was that Munster conceded just three tries with Saracens going in search of a crucial bonus-point.