Saracens end Munster's European dream

Julian GUYER
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Saracens players celebrate victory on the final whistle on April 22, 2017

Second-half tries from Mako Vunipola and Chris Wyles sent title-holders Saracens into the European Champions Cup final as they beat Munster 26-10 at Dublin's Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

Although they led only 6-3 at half-time, Saracens -- also the reigning English champions -- scored 20 unanswered points in the second half before Ireland's CJ Stander crossed for Munster in the last minute.

Saracens will now face the winners of Sunday's second semi-final between French club Clermont and Leinster, Munster's arch Irish rivals, in next month's final at Murrayfield.

"I thought our defence was extraordinary," said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.

"We couldn’t really escape our half in the first half but our defence remained good."

Munster have been riding a wave of emotion this season following the shock death of popular coach Anthony Foley on the eve of a Champions Cup pool match in Paris in October and their 'Red Army' of fans dominated Saturday's capacity crowd of more than 51,000.

"In the face of that, the fight and the togetherness that we had to show to win the game was brilliant," added former Ireland centre McCall after Saracens equalled Leinster's tournament record run of 17 unbeaten matches.

Despite Saracens spending 10 minutes down to 14 men after Jackson Wray was sin-binned, they turned around 6-3 in front after fly-half Owen Farrell kicked two penalties to one from Munster counterpart Tyler Bleyendaal.

Vunipola's converted try early in the second half gave the English giants breathing space at 13-3 and they'd already taken a grip of the game by the time replacement back Wyles went over 10 minutes from time.

Farrell, in a flawless kicking display, scored 16 points.

"The reality is that we came up against a team that were very much better than us," said Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.

Saracens' starting XV featured all six of their players selected this week for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand -- Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola.

But Munster remained without Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray, whose Lions place is at risk because of a nerve problem in his neck and shoulder.

Munster swarmed over Saracens in the early stages, with flanker Tommy O'Donnell forcing a five-metre scrum after tackling Farrell and Bleyendaal kicked them into the lead with a simple penalty.

Farrell drew Saracens level, however, with a 17th-minute penalty.

Amid a battle of sometimes aimless box-kicks, Saracens were a man down in the 23rd minute when flanker Wray was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on scrum-half Duncan Williams.

- Tough Saracens defence -

But Munster could not find a way through Saracens' defence.

Instead, Wray returned for a scrum where Saracens forced Munster prop Dave Kilcoyne into conceding a penalty and Farrell kicked the London club into the lead five minutes before the break.

Early in the second half, England lock Kruis went desperately close to a try when, with injured Munster captain Peter O'Mahony away from the play, he broke off the back of a ruck only to lose the ball as he stretched out to ground it over the line.

But Saracens did have a try in the 54th minute when England prop Mako Vunipola, bursting off a driving maul from a close-range line-out, powered his way past wing Keith Earls.

Farrell converted and Saracens had a 10-point lead.

Just before the hour, Bleyendaal pushed a kickable penalty wide of the right post.

Saracens tightened the screw further when more scrum pressure, led by tighthead prop Vincent Koch, resulted in a penalty on Munster's 22 and Farrell made no mistake as he put his side 16-3 up.

Bleyendaal was off-target with a bizarre drop-goal attempt before Wyles, in his first match in three months, ended Munster's hopes.

The 33-year-old former United States wing ran onto Farrell's cross-field grubber kick, outmuscled Simon Zebo and spun through the attempted challenge of Bleyendaal.

Farrell added another penalty, with Stander's score scant consolation for Munster.