Munster 10 – 3 Saracens
Johann van Graan admitted Saracens’ losing bonus point at Thomond Park could be crucial in the final shake-up in Munster’s European pool campaign.
Head coach van Graan’s side scored a hard-fought 10-3 home win against a weakened but not weak Saracens side as the defending Heineken Champions Cup titleholders rested some of their World Cup stars.
Munster remain unbeaten in Pool 4 but must travel to north London next Saturday for the rematch with Saracens, whose director of rugby Mark McCall suggested he would be recalling the likes of Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Jamie George, Vincent Koch and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, for the round-four showdown at Allianz Park.
That Saracens left a windswept and rain-sodden Limerick on Saturday night with a losing bonus point to keep their own qualification hopes alive following an opening-round loss in Paris to Racing 92 was positive for McCall and his English Premiership side while van Graan admitted: “It could be (crucial).
“We defended quite well, so small margins. We’ll take a win against Saracens any day of the week. Right from the start, we knew this pool was going to be tight.
“From our point of view, we are still unbeaten in this group. An away win with a bonus-point (at Ospreys), a home win against Saracens and a (home) draw against Racing. So it’s going to go right down to the wire and the only thing we can control is next week against Saracens in London.”
Saracens will go into next weekend’s match five points behind Munster and six adrift of Racing at the halfway stage of the pool campaign and McCall said: “It’s probably out of our hands to a degree.
“We’ll rotate. Some of the people who haven’t played today will play. Some of our non-internationals, who have had a really busy eight weeks or so, they’ll get some rest. “We’ve just got to manage our group as well as we can. We believe we’ve got a really competitive group of players and some of the experiences our younger players are getting, especially in a great place like Thomond Park, for young (Manu) Vunipola to play fly-half in a game like today, is going to be worth its weight in gold for someone like him.”
Van Graan did not accept Saracens were short-handed in any way at Thomond Park, his captain Peter O’Mahony scoring the only try of the game in the opening half, converted by JJ Hanrahan, who had opened the scoring with a penalty. Sarries scrum-half Ben Spencer grabbed the visitors’ only points with a penalty just before half time but saw two others strike the uprights.
“If certain teams rest players then certain people just assume that it’s their B team,” van Graan said. “They’re the European and the Premiership champions and you’ve got to look at the players who played in that team tonight.
“What people don’t see is our guys fighting for every single inch. If you look at some of the injuries that we’ve got in our positions, we are thin in certain areas but we just got to go out there and play. All the respect to the 23 guys that went out there to battle tonight, I thought they battled for virtually what was 81, 82 minutes against the European champions at home and we got a win against Saracens at home.”
The Munster boss had no complaints about the red card handed out by referee Romain Poite to replacement back-rower Arno Botha for a high forearm fend on Nick Tompkins in the 80th minute. Munster escaped further punishment when Jack O’Donoghue stole a Saracens lineout in the home 22 with time up.
“I’ll have to go have a look at it again. Initial thoughts, he definitely didn’t have any choice. Look, it happened so quickly, it was literally instinct. It was actually such a great carry but, unfortunately, if he’s made contact with the head, the referee doesn’t have any decision to award a red card.
“Obviously, he feels bad about it. It happens in a split second. We’ll have a look at it and it was, unfortunately, the last play of the game, then it went to a lineout and I thought we handled that quite well.”