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O'Gara Keeps Munster's Heineken Cup Hopes Alive

O'Gara Keeps Munster's Heineken Cup Hopes Alive
By Cian Tracey Updated

Munster kept their hopes of qualifying for the Heineken Cup knock out stages alive with a hard fought 15-9 victory over Saracens at Thomond Park this evening. In a pulsating clash that failed to produce a try, the away side snatched a late crucial losing bonus point when Owen Farrell kicked a penalty following a horror night with the boot.

Saracens started the game in nervy fashion and right from the restart made plenty of uncharacteristic errors. Ronan O'Gara opened the scoring after four minutes when he kicked a penalty after an infringement at the breakdown. Munster applied plenty of early pressure and played at a ferocious intensity. A super training ground move off a line out saw Conor Murray slice through the Saracens defence but he opted to pass to the on-running Simon Zebo rather than back himself in getting to the line.

Keith Earls saw plenty of early possession and looked very sharp following his return to Heineken Cup action. His wayward pass after ten minutes however, was almost intercepted by Chris Ashton but the English winger knocked on, much to the relief of Earls and the raucous Limerick crowd.

Saracens gained the upper hand in the scrum early on but failed to capitalise on their early pressure. Alex Goode set Ashton free following a mazy run but when he opted to kick through, full back Felix Jones covered well. The game was littered with penalties with an astonishing 28 being conceded in total (17 by Munster & 11 by Saracens) and when hooker Mike Sherry went off his feet at the ruck, Farrell was presented with the ideal opportunity to kick his side back into the game. But his effort dropped short of the posts which would set the tone of Farrell's night with the boot.

After an off the ball incident referee Pascal Gauzère went to the pocket and sent both Donncha O'Callaghan and Rhys Gill to the sin bin. Incidentally, Gauzère has given more yellow cards than he has officiated Heineken Cup games which gives an indication of his willingness to penalise both sides. That said though, neither side helped their cause and were guilty of giving away needless penalties time and time again.

Dave O'Callaghan who was making his first Heineken Cup start carried well and made some ferocious hits. The hit of the night however belonged to Munster skipper Doug Howlett. The former All Black smashed hooker Schalk Brits much to the satisfaction of the home crowd.

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Saracens normally reliable line out was a shambles in the first half and Munster robbed plenty of their possession from the set piece. They lost four of their own line outs in the first half alone. Farrell finally got his side on the scoreboard when Munster gave away yet another penalty at scrum time. But O'Gara cancelled that effort out just a minute later when he kicked Munster into a 9-3 half time lead.

The second half began just where the first left off and we only had to wait a minute before the first penalty. Farrell again got completely under his kick and his penalty dropped short. He didn't have to wait long to make amends though when Munster gave away another silly penalty directly from the restart. O'Gara continued his 100% record when he stroked another effort over. Saracens introduced Richard Wiggelsworth after 51 mins and the scrum half made an immediate impact when he provided quick ball for the Sarries backs.

Munster suffered some key injury blows in their back row before the game but were relieved to welcome James Coughlan back into the fold. Man of the match Coughlan was a colossus up front for the home side and showed no ill effects of his lengthy lay off. Saracens upped the tempo and but for a crucial last ditch tackle by Howlett would have been right back in the game.

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Zebo blatantly took Ashton out on the wing, leaving Farrell with another opportunity to pull his side back within a score of Munster. But again, he wasn't up to the task when his effort came back off the post. O'Gara made a baffling decision and kicked the restart flat and out on the full instead of putting the ball down the other end of the pitch. Munster once again shot themselves in the foot when they gifted Saracens with the opportunity to claim the losing bonus point. Farrell was finally successful, leaving his overall tally at a poor 3 from 7 attempts.

Saracens will be relieved to be leaving Limerick with a bonus point but will know that had Farrell kicked his goals, they could have claimed the win themselves. Both teams are now on ten points each with one loss apiece.

Munster travel to Watford next Sunday knowing that they must win again to keep their cup hopes alive. They will be glad of the win tonight but will be disappointed that they handed Saracens a losing bonus point which could turn out to be all important. It is still all to play for in Pool One with Saracens holding the slight advantage. But as always, write Munster off at your peril.

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