Moment of truth for injury-hit Munster
RUGBY:If it’s Saturday tea-time with a high-flying English team strutting into Thomond Park intent on storming the garrison town and a Munster side supposedly at a vulnerable point, then it must be the Heineken Cup.
It’s a dog-eared script all right, but you’d never grow tired of turning the pages. As history has shown us, it’s the stuff of miracles, even if the miracle match (that 33-6 win over Gloucester in 2003) was actually in the afternoon. All told, 14 of England’s finest sides have come to Thomond Park, but only Leicester, six years ago, have left with a win.
Time was when round six, Saturday tea-time pool finales became the norm, and that was the third of four in a row, but after much English bleeting, there haven’t been any since the 19-3 win over Wasps in 2008. But last year, the tea-time slot for the dastardly English was revived for the visit of Northampton. And though it was the opening weekend, the old magic remained, with that 50-phase drive culminating in Ronan O’Gara’s winning drop goal deep into over time.
Backs to the wall
Munster look as vulnerable as they’ve ever been and, yet again, have their backs to the wall. A largely self-inflicted defeat to Racing has left them no elbow room. Lose, and to all intents and purposes, their goose would look cooked before Christmas.
Still in the midst of a transitional phase in terms of personnel, they are also undergoing one in style under Rob Penney. It’s brave, exciting and has clearly been refreshing for the players, but it hasn’t been without pain. And this evening they must again plan without galvanising force Paul O’Connell.
It’s not just what he brings individually, it’s what he does to the collective. Even in his two Heineken Cup appearances this season, either side of long-term absences, the Munster pack looked a different unit. At times you could have thrown a blanket over them as their scrum, line-out and maul worked potently.
Donnacha Ryan’s career is flowering and he’s also matured into an excellent line-out manager, while alongside him Donnacha O’Callaghan’s honest work rate cannot be disputed. David Kilcoyne’s emergence strengthened the scrum and ball-carrying, while BJ Botha can lock a scrum.
The backrow is even more influential nowadays but they’ve been hit by injuries to new signings CJ Stander and Sean Dougal, the ever-improving Tommy O’Donnell and Niall Ronan. It’s a big ask then for fit-again James Coughlan after his swifter than expected return from injury, Peter O’Mahony and especially Dave O’Callaghan in what will be his first Heineken Cup start.
The 22-year-old from Youghal is a fine athlete and a good line-out operator.
The South African-backed and infused Sarries, with Europe a mere stepping stone fore their global ambitions, come with plenty of ballast up front: Schalk Brits must be the best ball-carrying hooker in the world and they have the best line-out in the competition to date. Sarries have yet to concede one ball on their own throw.
They’ve also added a few strings to their bow since their somewhat one-dimensional, straight running game yielded nothing out of Clermont in last season’s home quarter-final. There’s no point in signing Chris Ashton unless you intend using him and no winger runs better trailers.
He is one of four English backs returning from last week’s exultant win over the All Blacks and inside them Charlie Hodgson is pulling the strings better than ever.
Opposite him will be O’Gara. He’s had a few iffy moments but this is his competition, his terrain.
The Munster backline also remain a work in progress. Of the seven changes from the side that took the field against Edinburgh in round two, O’Gara, Earls and Felix Jones, a replacement that day, all return. Casey Laulala is dropped to the bench.
Even in their halcyon days the Irish province could only win three epics against Saracens, but it’s Saturday tea-time in the Munster citadel . . .
Previous meetings: (99-00) Saracens 34, Munster 35; Munster 31 Saracens 30. (07-08, semi-final) Saracens 16 Munster 18.
Betting (Paddy Power): 8/15 Munster, 20/1 Draw, Saracens 6/4. Handicap odds (Saracens +4pts) 10/11 Munster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Saracens.
Forecast: Munster to win.