Munster to strain every sinew in effort to dethrone Saracens
Red army a factor but European champions are grizzled lot and worthy favourites
CJ Stander: named in the Lions squad in midweek, the South African is recalled to Munster’s starting line-up for the visit of Saracens. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
European Champions Cup semi-final: Munster v Saracens
Kick off: 3.15pm.
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
TV: BT Sport3, 2.30
Another massive weekend for Irish rugby kicks off with the kind of occasion that only comes along every so often.
For only the fourth time in this competition, Munster will turn a little corner of D4 into an expanded version of their Thomond Park citadel for a day. And it should be some day.
This is Munster’s 12th semi-final, a record, but it’s their first visit to Dublin for a European Cup match since the losing 2009 semi-final in Croke Park, and their first in this ground since the semi-final win over Leinster two years previously.
That had followed a winning quarter-final over Perpignan, although perhaps today’s match-up with Saracens has more echoes of the epic 2004 semi-final at the old Lansdowne Road which Wasps won 37-32.
As expected, Duncan Williams continues to deputise for the injured Conor Murray, for all that a suspicious Mark McCall seemed to believe otherwise yesterday.
Williams is a fairly experienced, calm presence at scrum-half, and such was his performance in the quarter-final against Toulouse, and indeed this season, that perhaps too much can be made of Murray’s absence.
But Murray is world class. Hence he was one of three Munster Lions named last Wednesday. At least, like the recalled CJ Stander, Williams is fit, and is also recalled to the starting line-up along with Tyler Bleyendaal, who was on the bench last week.
Jaco Taute and Andrew Conway return at centre and wing, with Rory Scannell passed fit after recovering from the ankle injury he sustained last week, while Stander’s reinstatement and the inclusion of Springbok flanker Jean Deysel on the bench for a potential European debut means Jack O’Donoghue drops out of the squad completely.
With no specialist scrum-half named on the bench, Ian Keatley is seemingly covering both half-back positions, although Rassie Erasmus was vague on this subject last night.
Yet while Williams helped steer Munster through the quarter-finals, Toulouse are in decline, or at any rate transition, and now languish 12th in the Top 14, and will miss out on the end-of-season play-offs for the first time in over three decades after last week’s 10-8 defeat at home to Racing.
Saracens are a different proposition altogether.
Not unlike Wasps in 2004, Sarries have a chip on their shoulder. They’re competing in their fifth semi-final in a row, and are unbeaten in 16 European Champions Cup games. They’re steely, as they’ve twice shown away to Toulon in recent times, and Mark McCall should have them well versed in what to expect from this occasion.
They have also rediscovered their mojo after a mid-season wobble, and have won six in a row in their pursuit of a home Premiership semi-final and back-to-back doubles. They are a grizzled lot, who have suffered pain along the way to get to their current position of European and English pre-eminence.
They will have their six Lions named in midweek, five of them up front in an uber-physical pack along with Owen Farrell.
They have superb set-pieces, and will look to the Vunipolas, Maro Itoje et al to get them on the front foot. Not unlike Munster, they play a pressure game, which is founded on bossing territory and imposing their unrelenting, aggressive defence. And if that doesn’t work, they unleash a potent bench from their expensively assembled squad.
But generally it does work and that’s what makes them superb front-runners. If they acquire a lead, especially of a score or more, it will seem like a long way back for Munster.
If not though, and if the game is still finely balanced at half-time and entering the last quarter, that will made the Red Army more of a factor, and as ever, ensure that Munster’s performance adds up to more than the sum of its individual parts.
And the signs are it could be taut and tight, Munster (five) and Saracens (eight) having conceded the fewest tries in the competition, and none at all between them in the first-halves of their seven matches to date.
Munster are at their best when they have a cause, and as they’ve proved in winning 20 of their last 22 matches since the passing of Anthony Foley, they are certainly not without their causes this season, and particularly so today, with the reigning English and European champions swaggering into town as warm favourites.
The announcement of a Lions squad containing six Saracens and only three Munster players should act like a red rag to the men in red, not least to Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.
It would be just like them to have huge games. It would be just like Munster to turn frenzied passion in bouts of controlled carrying and recycling, to opt for kicks to the corner and use their maul, for Tyler Bleyendaal and Rory Scannell to play territory but also to choose their moments when to attack out wide, and to transfer pressure into points.
It would be just like them to win it too, all the more so as the reigning champions are worthy favourites.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan, D Ryan, B Holland, P O’Mahony (c), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander .
Replacements: R Marshall, JCronin, S Archer, D O’Callaghan, J Deysel, I Keatley, F Saili, D Sweetnam.
SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt (c), SMaitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch, M Itoje, G Kruis, M Rhodes, J Wray, B Vunipola.
Replacements: S Brits, T Lamositele, P du Plessis, J Hamilton, S Burger, B Spencer, A Lozowski, C Wyles.
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)
Routes to semi-finals: Munster – W 38-17 v Glasgow (h); W 38-0 v Leicester (h), L 16-18 v Leicester (a); 32-7 v Racing (a); W 14-12 v Glasgow (h), W 22-10 v Racing (h), (q/f) W 41-16 v Toulouse (h).
Saracens – W 31-23 v Toulon (a); W 44-26 v Scarlets (h), W 50-3 v Sale (h); W 24-10 v Sale (a); D 22-22 v Scarlets (a); W 10-3 v Toulon (h); (q/f) W 38-13 v Glasgow (h).
Leading points scorers: Munster – Tyler Bleyendaal 94. Saracens – Owen Farrell 97.
Leading try scorers: Munster – Simon Zebo 4. Saracens – Chris Ashton 5.
Head to head: Played 7, Munster 5 wins, Saracens 2 wins.
Last three meetings: (2011-12) Saracens 19 Munster 13. (2014-15) Munster 14 Saracens 3, Saracens 33 Munster 10.
Betting (Paddy Power): 13/8 Munster, 17/1 Draw, 8/15 Saracens. Handicap odds (Munster +4pts) Evens Munster, 20/1 Draw, Evens Saracens.
Forecast: Saracens to win.