Munster backed in to a corner, but have the tools to claw past Saracens

ALL THE SIGNS say this is the end of the road. Yet it feels that there’s a lot more to come.

Munster will run out at Allianz Park against Saracens today (1pm, BT Sports) with the clearest instruction for one of the most difficult tasks in European rugby. Beat Sarries.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In a certain light, the Premiership club seem to be on a journey akin to the one Munster endured before they finally blew the door off the Heineken Cup’s vault in 2006.

Mark McCall’s side currently sit second in the Champions Cup Pool 1, with a deep reserve of the pain and hunger – so necessary in driving a team to the top – that comes from defeat in the quarter, semi and the final of the European Cup in the past three seasons. As progress indicators go, this is an unmistakable one.

Unfortunately from Sarries’ point of view, they have come up against either Toulon or Clermont in each of those three years (which also sounds a little familiar). And, in 2011, they exited the group stage through a combination of Clermont and Leinster.

It’s that fate which Munster are aiming to inflict on Saracens today while furthering their own legacy.

Anthony Foley’s side will have to do that without the man who has pulled the strings this season. Conor Murray suffered a neck injury while getting caught between defenders and the goalpost in the act of scoring a try against Zebre. A cruel twist that leaves Duncan Williams as Munster’s only registered scrum-half in European competition.

Foley has at least been able to welcome James Cronin and Duncan Casey back into the front row alongside BJ Botha. And behind them, it’s effectively a full strength pack leading the charge in this win-or-bust fixture.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve started our knock-out stage in Europe a couple of weeks earlier than we would have liked,” Foley says with his bone dry wit.

“We need to make sure we’re focused and we need to understand the consequence of this game and make sure we go about our job between now and Saturday so we can live in the moment.”

Each and every moment will take place on Allianz Park’s artificial surface. The impact of the 3G pitch will vary depending on an individual player’s position. Scrummaging will be more efficient, but with a drier ball there should be less of them. The ball can bounce strangely, so back three players must be positioned well to take kicks on the full or else face embarrassment of being wrong-footed.

However, “zero” is how Peter O’Mahony sums up impact of the pitch on the breakdown. As usual, that area will be the key to living to fight another day in the Champions Cup, and will be a major focus for the visitors with the the ball-carrying of CJ Stander complimenting the groundwork of O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell.

Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Saracens, of course, won’t be cowed easily in any of those areas with Billy Vunipola a considerable force and the back of the scrum, Alistair Hargreaves returning to the second row just as George Kruis is lost to suspension and Brad Barritt bolstering the home side’s midfield muscle.

It’s backs-to-the-wall cup rugby with the odds mounting up against them. Isn’t that just the sort of scenario Munster thrive on?

“I don’t know does it suit us,” shrugged O’Connell to this week.

“I suppose we’ve a tradition of qualifying from the group which probably puts a bit of pressure on the players to dig really deep and get results.

“Hopefully we can do that again and if we can get a win this weekend we’ve a chance – an outside chance – but it’s a chance of qualifying.”

Sale Sharks at Thomond Park comes next week, and whether that game means anything rests on 80 intense minutes at lunchtime today.


15. Alex Goode
14. Chris Ashton
13. Marcelo Bosch
12. Brad Barritt
11. David Strettle
10. Owen Farrell
9. Richard Wigglesworth

1. Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Petrus Du Plessis
4. Jim Hamilton
5. Alistair Hargreaves (captain)
6. Kelly Brown
7. Jacques Burger
8. Billy Vunipola


16. Brett Sharman
17. Richard Barrington
18. James Johnston
19. Maro Itoje
20. Ernst Joubert
21. Neil de Kock
22. Charlie Hodgson
23. Chris Wyles


15. Felix Jones
14. Andrew Conway
13. Pat Howard
12. Denis Hurley
11. Simon Zebo
10. Ian Keatley
9. Duncan Williams

1. James Cronin
2. Duncan Casey
3. BJ Botha
4. Dave Foley
5. Paul O’Connell
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander


16. Eusebio Guiñazú
17. John Ryan
18. Stephen Archer
19. Billy Holland
20. Dave O’Callaghan
21. Ronan O’Mahony
22. JJ Hanrahan
23. Keith Earls

Can Munster prevail, or will Saracens continue their march?

How big an advantage will Saracens’ synthetic pitch be against Munster?No miracles required against Saracens but Munster need smart gameplan‘We can’t get around to every Munster fan to say thank you, but we’d love to’ — Peter O’Mahony

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