Munster vs Saracens
European Rugby Champions Cup Semi Final
Saturday 22 April
Where to start with this one? Saracens in a fifth European semi-final in a row, matching Munster's run from 2000 to 2004, and a full house in Dublin (mainly) clamouring for a third title to add to those in 2006 and 2008.
Both sides have proved the adage "it's not where you start, it's where you finish" this season in their determination and success in closing out wins. Looking well beaten going into the last quarter, with a losing bonus point seemingly out of reach, Saracens came out with that win against Northampton, keeping a cool head to sense out a chance with the home side out of position, and showing ice-cool execution to get the winning score, a day after Munster had forced a late win in the Guinness Pro12 over Ulster. Logically, if Sarries can emerge from that position, they can win any game. But the game is not just about logic, otherwise, we might as well as just follow spreadsheets. For Munster, this match will be about the raw emotion for players and supporters alike, and a determination to win something in a season dominated by the tragic passing of head coach Anthony Foley on the morning of the first pool game, as the two-times winners bid for their own double. As such, this is likely to be the most powerful atmosphere ever faced in a semi-final for Saracens, in stark contrast to that 2013 semi at a third-full Twickenham where Toulon prevailed, and though the demolition of Clermont the following season marked the arrival of Saracens as a true force, there were still only just over 25,000 there. The trip to Clermont two years ago had a real sense of "what might have been", but proved to be another stage in the club's development, culminating in last season's triumph in Lyon, this earnt by a tight win in the semi with Wasps at Reading.
Both sides are keen to claim the status of underdog, but given a well-drilled, well-balanced and well-resourced side, it's a ridiculous tag to apply to Saracens in any match, including this one (and the bookies are never wrong, are they...). The teams on show today boast the best defensive records in this year's tournament, and similarly, have mixed tight wins with more comfortable successes. Saracens opening pool game saw them earn a famous 31-23 win at Toulon, ending the home side's long unbeaten run in Europe and showcasing a new clinical edge in attack alongside the customary strong defending, a combination which has come to the fore again in recent weeks. Large bonus points successes at home to Scarlets and Sale saw Sarries remain in control of the pool. A tighter win ensued at Sale before a dramatic draw was rescued as Scarlets, and defensive toughness was to the fore as the double was completed with Toulon. The French side were tipped to dominate French and European rugby for years, until their Quarter Final defeat to Racing last season seemed to hint at a changing of the guard, which was the case, but towards Saracens in European terms. Toulon's relative demise is a warning that standards must be maintained, and squads, as well as playing styles, need to evolve; something Saracens have done far better. Perhaps the biggest risk on Saturday is complacency, something which can never be levelled at this side, and the range of attacking options and strategies on displays suggests they should have enough.
Munster's European campaign had a delayed start as the club came to terms with the loss of Foley but an emotional Thomond Park reconvened to see Munster beat Glasgow Warriors 38-17 with an intensity in both defence and attack which allowed them to prevail despite having Keith Earls sent off in the first half. When they came back there for their second pool came, there was an even more powerful display as Leicester Tigers were demolished 38-0, although the return match in the East Midlands saw them fall to a last gasp penalty having themselves forged ahead late in the game. January saw the pool stages conclude with a trio of wins to take second seeding behind Clermont, as the rescheduled game at Racing saw a 32-7 win, whilst a tighter game at Glasgow saw the visitors squeeze a 14-12 win with another late try, learning the lessons of the loss at Leicester, before rounding things off with a 22-10 home victory over Racing. Performance in the Pro12, where Leinster and Munster have shuffled between the two spots, demonstrates that the need to qualify for the European tournament has not caused problems for the Irish provinces, and Munster have recorded some impressive successes in this competition too, completing doubles over Ospreys, Ulster, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newport and Zebre, as well as beating Leinster at home.
Turning to the specifics of the match, much has been said about the fitness of Lions pair Conor Murray. Murray was the form scrum half of the Northern Hemisphere ahead of an injury in the RBS 6 Nations, and there is debate about whether he will make the match, although replacement scrum half Duncan Williams had an excellent game in the Quarter Final against Toulouse. Back rower CJ Stander has impressed equally for province and Ireland, and is a focal point of the attack much in the vein of Billy Vunipola for Sarries. Saracens will take heart from, one kick aside, they dealt admirably with a potent Glasgow attack, and that Munster's attacking play, although excellent on its day, is not always as clinical as they would like, and indeed elements of the gameplan, including relying on the pack, strong defensive and a heavy kicking game are similar to previous versions of the Saracens approach. That said, Simon Zebo and Earls will be keen to prove that their exclusion from the Lions was a mistake, and are a real danger on the counterattack, if a dangerous back row can snare quick turnover ball. The respective kicking games appear essential, as Saracens will hope to pin back Munster deep in their own half and force mistakes given that incisiveness in attack can sometimes be lacking, although both Murray and fly half Tyler Bleyendaal have dangerous kicking games too.
Possible line ups would have Simon Zebo at full back with Darren Sweetnam and Earls on the wings, and a centre partnership of Jaco Taute and Francis Saili, with Bleyendaal accompanying Williams in the half backs. Pack-wise, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan, with Donnacha Ryan and Billy Holland making up the second row, and Lion Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and Stander forming the back row. Saracens should have Alex Goode at full back, with Chris Ashton and Sean Maitland occupying the wings, outside a centre partnership of Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell back at fly half and Richard Wigglesworth returning to scrum half. Pack-wise, we should see Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Petrus du Plessis, with George Kruis and Maro Itoje back in tandem in the second row, and a back row of Michael Rhodes, Schalk Burger and Billy Vunipola.
So, who will win? Just like the Lions, it's all down to pride..
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