Billy Vunipola was on the score sheet as Saracens reached their third European final in four seasons after beating Heineken Champions Cup opponents Munster 32-16.
Saracens’ England number eight delivered an official man-of-the-match display, but he was booed most times he touched the ball at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
But the powerful back-row forward claimed Saracens’ second touchdown to book an appointment in next month’s final against holders Leinster or French heavyweights Toulouse at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
Fly-half Owen Farrell was the architect of Saracens’ semi-final victory, kicking 22 points, while flanker Michael Rhodes also touched down during a dominant second-half team performance.
Despite wing Darren Sweetnam’s try, two Tyler Bleyendaal penalties, a long-range Conor Murray strike and JJ Hanrahan conversion, Munster suffered a seventh successive European semi-final defeat on their record 14th appearance in the competition’s penultimate knockout stage.
The stadium resembled a home match for Munster, with their fans considerably outnumbering Saracens’ supporters among a crowd that barely half-filled the Ricoh.
The Saracens minority immediately had something to cheer about, though, as Farrell kicked his team into a second-minute lead from 35 metres.
A Bleyendaal penalty drew Munster level seven minutes later, and although jeers accompanied Vunipola’s first touch of the ball, Saracens were quickly into their stride as a second Farrell penalty made it 6-3.
Farrell completed a penalty hat-trick in the 27th minute, but a second Bleyendaal strike quickly cut the gap again to three points.
FULL TIME | Saracens 32-16 Munster ⚫️🔴 pic.twitter.com/swdAZdJFvr— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) April 20, 2019
Saracens continued to dominate in terms of possession and territory, yet too often they were let down by a combination of poor handling and resolute Munster defence that had centre Chris Farrell at its core.
Munster drew level three minutes before the break when Murray landed a penalty from just inside Saracens’ half, before a fourth successful Farrell penalty made it 12-9 at the interval.
Saracens skipper Brad Barritt did not appear for the second period and he was replaced by Nick Tompkins, but the English champions were not disrupted.
They scored the game’s opening try within three minutes of the restart when Rhodes rounded off a sustained spell of pressure.
Farrell’s conversion opened up a 10-point lead, piling pressure on a Munster side that had defended impressively, but lacked an attacking spark, before his fifth and sixth penalty successes made it 25-9.
Munster had conceded 10 points in four minutes, and they fell further behind as Farrell’s sixth successful penalty surged Saracens on.
But Munster rallied strongly early in the final quarter, setting up camp near Saracens’ line before wing Sweetnam scored a try and substitute Hanrahan kicked the touchline conversion.
Munster, though, could not find a way back, and Vunipola touched down eight minutes from time, with Farrell’s conversion ending the scoring and sealing an impressive win.
Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best has announced he will retire from professional rugby after the World Cup in Japan.
Hooker Best has been capped 116 times by his country and won the Six Nations four times, including Grand Slams in 2009 and 2018.
The 36-year-old won the Pro12 with Ulster in 2006 and has scored 23 tries in 219 appearances for the club following his debut in 2004.
“It is with mixed feelings that I announce my retirement from Ulster Rugby as of the end of this season,” Best told Ulster’s website.
“This feels like the right time for me to go out on my terms, a luxury for which I feel very privileged.
“I am very excited for the end of the season with Ulster Rugby and for the upcoming World Cup with Ireland, both of which I hope to finish with a massive high, playing at the top of my game.”
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Saracens face Munster in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup on Saturday.
Mark McCall’s side are the form team this year and look destined to reach a third final in four seasons.
Here, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the match.
Saracens Europe’s best?
The North London side will contest their seventh semi-final this weekend and, coupled with Leinster’s mixed form, are well on course to replicate their victories in 2016 and 2017.
Led by Owen Farrell, Sarries have the ultimate competitor who is always hungry for success. Like him or loathe him, the England captain is a magical player who is often the tipping point between winning and losing.
His kicking from hand is exceptional and can expose the opposition’s positioning with his clever kicks, vision and solid distribution.
But even without the presence of their inspirational star, there is class all around the park in Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Brad Barritt.
Barritt, in particular, looks to have rediscovered his old form this season and is more than capable of steering the ship if Farrell is injured or off-colour.
With the Premiership also in their sights, it looks set to be another thrilling end to the season for McCall and his impressive side.
All eyes on Vunipola
The English star was booed during last week’s defeat to Bristol after showing support for Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for his controversial posts on social media.
For any player, it’s not nice entering a marquee fixture under a cloud of smoke due to the negative impact it could have on their individual performance.
McCall had to field questions all week about Vunipola’s actions and it’s an unwanted distraction leading into a European semi-final. In the build-up to such a crucial clash, you want to be talking rugby and the occasion itself rather than the negative outside music.
Vunipola won’t be thanked by his team-mates or management, but these players are professionals and should be used to playing in high-intensity games without letting distractions affect them.
Vunipola’s beliefs and what it has attracted is unlikely to have an affect on the result itself, but it’s an unwanted interruption.
Munster’s best approach?
The more you look at Saracens, the less weaknesses you find. They are the form team in Europe and will be hard to stop. For Munster, they need to build on comfortable recent wins against Edinburgh, Cardiff and Benetton if they want to reach a first final since 2008
Johann van Graan’s side have improved hugely since their 26-10 defeat to Saracens in the semi-finals two years ago, a fixture in which they fell apart late on after enjoying the bulk of possession and territory in the first-half.
This time around, Munster need to get the blend right with their creativity and ask more questions of a stellar Saracens side.
With an experienced half-back partnership in Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal, the Red Army need to execute the kicking game to put their opponents on the back foot and spread the ball wide to gain valuable yards.
Sometimes it feels like a minor miracle when talisman Keith Earls gets the ball out wide, but Munster need to ship possession to their back three at every opportunity in a bid to test Sarries in the wide channels.
In the scrum there is buckets of quality with prop David Kilcoyne having the season of his career. And if they can perform well in the line-out, contest the breakdown and slow the ball down, they should be in with a chance.
It may be a step too far, but Munster are developing well and in a real sweet spot to push them to the brink.
Chance for Bleyendaal to shine?
With Joey Carbery sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Bleyendaal has a chance to make his mark in Munster’s biggest fixture of the season.
Bleyendaal’s injury profile at Munster has been well documented, with two neck surgeries ruling him out for nearly two seasons and curtailing a career that looked certain to scale greater heights. Since joining from Saracens in 2015, he has only made 52 appearances for the province.
But, looking back to sparkling form after a superb cameo against Edinburgh last month, the 28-year-old Kiwi will take centre stage against the purring Farrell in Coventry.
It’s hard to quantify the overall impact of Bleyendaal, such is his stop-start tenure in Limerick so far, but his kicking game is strong and he plays almost like a ninth forward with his granite-like defence, solid passing and general game management.
If the former Crusaders man can get on top and provide his backs with the right ball then Saracens will struggle.