No club has come to represent Munster's European glass ceiling more than Saracens. The reigning champions knocked Munster out in the penultimate pool round five seasons ago at Allianz Park before beating them in the semi-finals three seasons ago at the Aviva Stadium and again at the Ricoh Arena last April.
They were emphatic wins too, by scorelines of 33-10, 25-10 and 32-16. Yet, ironically, no organisation inspired Saracens to develop their culture and winning mentality more than Munster.
Nigel Wray, Saracens' long-standing benefactor and chairman since becoming involved with the club in 1995, initially pursued a policy of signing high profile and proven international stars such as Francois Pienaar, Philippe Sella and Michael Lynagh but admitted to being blown away by the fervour of a largely indigenous Munster and home crowd at Thomond Park when beaten there by 31-30 in January 2000.
Munster had great continuity in their people, in their playing staff and general staff. They brought through their own players, they were consistent, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, and we wanted to be a bit like that, and hopefully over the 10-year period we've got close to that.
Unwelcome at other Premiership grounds since their 35-point deduction and near €6.3 million fine for breaches of the salary cap, it remains to be seen whether Wray attends Thomond Park today.
Relations between the two became a little frosty when the somewhat confrontational if hugely influential Edward Griffiths was the Saracens chief executive and there was a decidedly uncivil atmosphere at last season’s semi-final in Coventry following Billy Vunipola’s support for Israel Folau.
The pariahs of the Premiership, cornered and even more disliked than ever, true to type, Saracens will probably only revel in their current predicament. Mark McCall was brought on board by Venter as his assistant in 2009 before succeeding him as director of rugby midway through the 2010-11 season and he laughed when this reporter suggested they thrive in their Millwall-esque “no-one likes us but we don’t care” tight-knit mentality.
“When that new phase of Saracens began in 2009 we wanted to be the opposite of what they’d been before,” says McCall. “We actually wanted, as it happened, to be more like Munster to be honest. They were the club which had all the characteristics that you wanted to have.
“They had great continuity in their people, in their playing staff and general staff. They brought through their own players, they were consistent, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, and we wanted to be a bit like that, and hopefully over the 10-year period we’ve got close to that.
“We’ve had a lot of continuity in the people. A lot of the players have been here for over seven years. Most of the staff have been too. I think that’s the most important thing in what we’re fighting really, because we’ve been through quite a lot together as it is and this is just a tremendous challenge that we’ve got now.”
Venter swiftly culled 18 players on becoming head coach during the 2009-10 season, in what came to be known among fans as “the night of the long knives”. The ensuing influx of South African backers and South African players led to them being known as “Saffracens”.
“Obviously it’s been well documented with what happened in 2009 with (the arrival of) Brendan (Venter) and Edward and the changes that were made then,” says McCall. “I suppose starting it and continuing it are two different things and I think the key thing has just been to keep people around for as long as you can and create an atmosphere that people want to stay in and people don’t want to leave too often, and we think we’ve done that.”
“So, yeah, I think of why it’s tight and why it’s together, those are the reasons, because those relationships have been long-standing. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the last ten years and I think that’s made these relationships as strong as they’ll need to be to get us through this next one.”
Indeed, also akin to Munster, there was plenty of pain before the gains. “Although we won the Premiership in 2011 it was a little bit ahead of time and from 2011 to 2015 we didn’t win anything. But we got into a lot of playoff matches and quarter-finals of the Champions, and then kept on getting into semi-finals of the Premiership.”
“We had a painful fortnight in 2014 when Toulon hammered us in the Millennium Stadium and then we lost the Premiership final seven days later,” added McCall, in reference to the 24-20 defeat after extra-time by Northampton at Twickenham.
“Those are all the painful experiences that we suffered and even in 2015 we lost an away semi-final against Clermont in the Champions but managed to win the game against Bath in the final of the league. Since then it’s been really good but we had to go through quite a lot before we started getting some success in those finals.”
“It is a lot like Munster, because it makes me laugh when people criticize them for getting knocked out in the semi-finals of this competition. They get into it every year. I think people should be applauding them for what an unbelievable achievement it is – every single year they’re there or thereabouts, knocking on the door and coming back for more the next year. And that’s the thing I admire most about them.”
McCall regards Munster as the institution of the Heineken Cup.
“It’s not just a team. Their fans have made the competition down through the years which we’ve experienced big time recently, but also what you get when you go to Thomond Park. For some of our younger players who are going to experience that tomorrow, well you can’t get anything better than that to learn from. That’s going to be incredible.”
“There was always a thought when it was Claw and Gaillimh and they lost all of them, what was going to happen next? Then they had O’Gara, O’Connell and Denis Leamy and Dave Wallace, and then what was going to happen next when they left? They just keep re-inventing themselves and bringing through who’ve they’ve brought through.”
“So they’re a club we admire, and I admire, so much and they’re exactly the kind of club you want to be involved in.”
McCall’s selection for today’s game will have raised eyebrows but they haven’t thrown their hat at the Heineken Champions Cup just yet. “I think after four rounds if we’re in the hunt, and that obviously requires a good return over the next two games and these back-to-back matches against Munster are important at the end of the end of the two games to see where we’re at and where they’re at.”
Our situation is a bit more complicated obviously with the points' deduction that we have, so what would be our normal strategy just can't be our normal strategy
“We’ve got Ospreys away and then Racing at home and they (Munster) have got Racing away and Ospreys at home, so we’ll just see where we are after these four games.”
“I don’t think we’re the only team who are looking after their resources. Gloucester changed 12 from Champions Cup one to Champions Cup two, it’s just the way it is. Our situation is a bit more complicated obviously with the points’ deduction that we have, so what would be our normal strategy just can’t be our normal strategy.”
Premiership survival is more important for Saracens than retaining the Heineken Cup this season. While there’s no doubting the players’ loyalty to the club, relegation would force some of them to consider their options, not least in a season that features the customary test schedule and culminates in a Lions tour.
Saracens will also be without their international contingent again for five Premiership ship games during the Six Nations but even with that 35 point deduction, survival should be well within their compass.
In the last four seasons, Saracens accumulated 80, 77, 77 again and 78 points in their 22 games. Last season Newcastle went down with 31 points, as against the totals of 22, 20 and 20 points again which did for London Irish either side of Bristol in the previous three seasons.
In the 19 seasons since the bonus point system was introduced into the Premiership, Newcastle’s is the fourth highest of a relegated club, behind Northampton on 33 in 2006-07, Bristol on 34 in 2002-03 and Harlequins on 38 in 2004-05.
The concern for Saracens is that, akin to last season, there appear to be no whipping boys, with Bristol flying high in their second season back in the top flight and London Irish adapting to life in the Premiership encouragingly under Declan Kidney.
“As you say, there’s no fall guy at all this season. Everybody can beat each other and some of the teams that people expected to be down at the bottom have had fantastic starts to the season. Be that as it may, we can’t really worry too much about that. We’ve got to try and win as many Premiership games as we can.”
“We got off to a decent start in the Premiership especially as we had quite a few people not available to begin with. We’ve got that chunk of games over February and March where we’re going to minus those international players again which makes the Christmas fixture very important for us. We’ve got three consecutive league games after the Munster home game and they’re really important,” said McCall in reference to the Premiership matches against Bristol (home), Exeter (away) and Worcester (home).
But if they do qualify for the quarter-finals then, as captain Brad Barritt has said, “all bets are off”. Saracens have won four Premierships and three Euro crowns in the last five seasons, and McCall says: “I just think it was time. When we lost in 2014 against Toulon and in a tighter final against Northampton we kind of felt sorry for ourselves for a couple of months but then there was a big realization that we just weren’t good enough at that point.”
“A lot of the players who are good for us now were 22/23/24, and they were just on that part of their journey. We were on that part of our journey and I just think it was time, and those players got better. As a group we got better. I don’t think there was a big change. There was just a gradual evolvement.”
The club are also famed for their inventive ideas and methods off the pitch, be it their international reach through matches and ties with other clubs abroad, bonding trips, a creche for the players’ children and assisting players’ education long before it became fashionable.
“Having been at Ulster and Castres, Saracens were certainly doing more at the club when I arrived and have continued to do great work behind the scenes in preparing players for what happens next in life after rugby and making sure their down time is well used.”
“For different people that will mean different things, for some it’s education. For some it’s more experience, for some it’s a trade, and the club are really, really good at that. We’ve got two or three people who work on that sector of the club and make sure that the players are really well advised and guided in that area.”
McCall was thrilled to hear of his old buddy Jeremy Davidson receiving a new deal as head coach at Brive, and he'll always be indebted to Davidson for inviting him over to Castres in 2008 after McCall resigned as Ulster's head coach.
“Jeremy is a great example of someone who has shown unbelievable resilience over the years in coaching. He invited me over to Castres and Ugo Mola got sacked after three games the week I was there. It’s amazing how things can happen and I ended up staying there for two years and never went home because I got the call from Saracens. I thought we would just go and give that a go, and now I’ve been away from home for 12 years since Jeremy’s call.”
“This is my 11th season at the club. It’s been a fifth of my life,” says McCall, whose 50th birthday was marked by Saracens’ 25-12 win at Bath eight days ago. “I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have been here.”
There’s been no more successful Irish coach abroad than McCall, and you wonder might he be of a mind to one day coach Ireland if asked.
“It’s a thought which is very far from my mind I’ve got to say. I really enjoy the day to day. I enjoy what I do and I haven’t really thought about it.”