Saracens defeated Munster by 32-16 to book their place in a third Heineken Champions Cup final in four seasons, with Billy Vunipola ending a controversial week by delivering a man-of-the-match try-scoring performance to reward his club for their faith in him.
The England No 8 started off the week by receiving warnings from both his club and the Rugby Football Union after expressing his support for Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for a string of homophobic comments on social media. But by the end of it, the 26-year-old was the one smiling and celebrating, and his try – on top of a second-half score from Michael Rhodes – plus 22 points from the boot of Owen Farrell ensured that there will be English interests in the final in Newcastle next month.
The divide in reception for Vunipola could not have been more apparent though than at full-time, as while running to catch up his teammates following a post-match TV interview, Vunipola saw his celebrations interrupted by a Munster fan who ran on the pitch to confront the 126kg forward and swear at him repeatedly, before wisely running off.
Munster threatened a brief fightback in the second half when Darren Sweetnam crossed to pull Saracens back to within nine points, but even though fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal, half-back partner Conor Murray and replacement JJ Hanrahan kicked all of their chances at goal to add 11 points, they could not hold on to the reigning Premiership champions as they pulled away in the final quarter.
By naming Vunipola in the starting line-up following his formal warning earlier in the week, Saracens hoped to draw a line beneath the homophobia row that has engulfed rugby union over the past fortnight. But even before kick-off, it was apparent that would not be allowed to happen, with rainbow flags dotted around the Ricoh Arena in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
Next came the boos, with the pre-game cheers from Saracens supporters for the under-fire No 8 quickly drowned out by a cacophony of jeers from the Munster faithful, and the incident after the final whistle will only see the matter drag on and on.
But on the pitch, the England international was the standout player as Saracens took the fight to Munster.
It did not take long for the scoreboard to get rolling. Barely a minute was on the clock when Saracens earned their first penalty of the match, Peter O’Mahony penalised for offside at the breakdown, which came as a result of two consecutive box kicks from scrum-half Ben Spencer. England relied heavily on tactical kicking to cause problems for Ireland in the Six Nations, and it paid off again here as Farrell and Spencer linked with the aerial threats of Liam Williams and David Strettle out wide to find avenues of winning back possession.
Munster levelled the scores at three-apiece with 10 minutes gone as the returning Mako Vunipola – back from two months out injured with damaged ankle ligaments – failed to stay on his feet challenging for the ball.
There was little to separate the two sides throughout the first half, something best summed up by Saracens’ second penalty. As Spencer sent another high ball airborne, Farrell’s eyes lit up as he spotted full-back Mike Haley in range and the England captain levelled him the split-second he returned to the turf – at least in the eyes of referee Jerome Garces. Munster fans furiously demanded a penalty, but their anger turned to red-hot rage when Saracens earned the penalty for holding on and Farrell successfully kicked it to put the ‘home’ side back in front.
The Saracens attack was finding it difficult to bludgeon down a resilient Munster defence, with three more points from Farrell all they had to show for their dominance in territory and possession. And yet from nowhere, Munster were suddenly level. Maro Itoje proved the culprit for both of Munster’s penalties, playing the ball while off his feet before being caught offside, and while the latter proved out of Bleyendaal’s range, it was just within half-back partner Murray’s who levelled the scores.
Munster looked to be heading in at the break level, only for a TMO review to deem O’Mahony guilty of deliberately knocking the ball on in a tackle on Farrell that gave him three more points and the half-time lead.
It was there that the contest ended if being truthful, as the Saracens side that emerged from the tunnel was vastly superior to the one that went into it. Within three minutes, Saracens were delivering the type of creative rugby that took them to six wins from six in the pool stages. A lovely miss-pass from Alex Goode deceived opposite man Andrew Conway, and after tighthead prop Titi Lamositele broke down the left wing, Michael Rhodes cut an inside line on the next phase that left prop John Ryan stumped and gave the flanker a free run-in.
Munster needed a big score and fast, and yet it didn’t come. Two more penalties allowed Farrell to add six points to the lead and extend the score to 25-9, but finally Munster clicked into gear. It took the removal of full-back Haley and fly-half Bleyendaal to happen, with replacement No 10 JJ Hanrahan giving Munster the much-needed territory they needed to attack from, and after the chance looked to have gone when Saracens defused a 5m lineout the ball squirted out of the ensuing scrum and into the hands of Murray, who whipped the ball out wide to allow Sweetnam to score.
With just nine points in it, the game suddenly felt alive, only for Vunipola’s moment to arrive. Again, the opportunity came from Saracens’ aerial superiority, with Williams taking a lovely catch on the right wing before his fellow flyer Strettle beat three defenders with a mazy run in-field. With the defence scrambling, Vunipola carried over the line to touch down and secure the victory that will see them ready and waiting in Newcastle for either Leinster or Toulouse.