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.