Munster on back foot with loss of Carbery and Earls
Fate has pitted van Graan's side with away semi-final and perhaps the toughest draw
Munster’s Niall Scannell and Peter O’Mahony during the captain’s run at Ricoh Arena, Coventry. Photograph: Inpho
Champions Cup semi-finals: Saracens v Munster
Kick off: 3pm, Saturday. Venue: Ricoh Arena. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start from 2.30pm. On TV: BT Sport.
You can’t keep a good team down. Munster have rolled with more punches than any team in the history of the Heineken Champions Cup, even Clermont Auvergne, yet despite suffering nine semi-final defeats out of their previous 13, including their last six, here they are again.
As magnificent obsessions go, this is almost reaching the fevered levels of 2006. Once again fate has pitted them with an away semi-final and seemingly the toughest draw possible against an in-form Saracens team themselves on a mission to regain the trophy they won in 2016 and 2017 before feeling the brunt of a post-Lions season.
And once again the Red Army will travel with hope and belief, and will dwarf the home support in the Ricoh Arena, as they did when Munster beat Saracens in the 2008 semi-finals en route to lifting the trophy for a second time.
Admittedly, the emphatic nature of Saracens’ 26-10 win at the same stage two years ago, en route to them retaining the trophy, at the Aviva Stadium is probably a more relevant yardstick. Rarely have Munster produced such a limited, off-colour performance at such an advanced stage, and their costly no-show in the first half-hour against Racing 12 months ago remains a mystery which their preceding two-match trek to South Africa can only partially explain.
It was after that game that Peter O’Mahony declared he was sick of losing semi-finals, having played in three of their last four. On Saturday, the in-form Munster captain will, in tandem with his team, bring a ferocious focus to end this sequence on the occasion of his 50th Champions Cup appearance. For the third year running, he has started every game in the tournament. This is a man and a team on a mission.
They will hardly play as narrowly or with such a tactical straitjacket as they did two seasons ago, or defend as passively as they did last season. Under Johann van Graan, Munster have stealthily added to their attacking game, as they showed with Keith Earls’ second try against Edinburgh in the semi-finals.
As they also showed in that game, they have brought far more line speed to their defensive system this season, and are comfortable in their spacing and when to attack the oppsotion breakdown. JP Ferreira’s influence as defence coach is such Munster have the best defensive record in this competition and the Pro14.
True, they’ll need that aplenty against such a potent team as these Sarries, who scored seven tries in routing Glasgow, and that was without Owen Farrell. Certainly, the Red Army wouldn’t like to see their team having to chase the game from a couple of scores behind.
They also have Conor Murray, whom they were denied two seasons ago through injury, while Tadhg Beirne and Chris Farrell have added other dimensions to Munster’s ability to win turnovers and to their attacking game.
They can rightly take comfort from having played the two sides immediately above and below Saracens in the Premiership, and emerge unbeaten.
They’re due a big semi-final performance, while Saracens have been a little patchy of late themselves.
It could be that Tyler Bleyendaal’s experience, game management and kicking game will be more suited to this semi-final. Wouldn’t it be typical of sport after his difficult day against Saracens two years ago were he to emerge the unlikely hero in the absence of Joey Carbery.
However, to lose their leading try scorer, Earls, on top of their leading points scorer in Carbery is a cruel double whammy.
It’s not beyond them. Nothing ever is beyond Munster in this competition. But were they to win this it would rank up there with the best of their victories.
It could be taut, tense and low scoring. Munster have a fighting chance, but they’ve lost a little bit of X-factor and cutting edge without Carbery and Earls. By contrast, the champions of 2016 and 2017 look fully loaded indeed.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Darren Sweetnam; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Alby Mathewson, JJ Hanrahan, Dan Goggin.
SARACENS: Alex Goode; Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (capt), Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Ben Spencer; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Titi Lamositele; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Will Skelton, Schalk Burger, Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins, David Strettle.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)
Head to head: Played 8. Saracens 3 wins, Munster 5 wins.
Leading try scorers: Saracens – Sean Maitland 4. Munster – Keith Earls 3.
Leading points scorers: Saracens – Owen Farrell 57. Munster – Joey Carbery 70.
Betting (Paddy Powers): ¼ Saracens, 19/1 Draw, 3/1 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster + 8pts) Evens Saracens, 16/1 Draw, Evens Munster.
Forecast: Saracens to win.