Munster must hit the ground running to stun Saracens’ star power

Mike Haley, left, and Darren Sweetnam arrive for the Munster captain’s run at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, yesterday. Picture: Brendan Moran

Ever get that feeling that the stars are aligning for some special purpose?

Saracens supporters might have when they saw their team for today’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, a selection that suggested they may be getting into the formation of the crescent that adorns their crest.

When Mark McCall named his side for this clash at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena even the taciturn Ulsterman may have afforded himself a smile.

After all, he recalled captain, defensive leader and backline driving force Brad Barritt to his midfield for the first time since the quarter-final victory over Glasgow Warriors, and slotted in Mako Vunipola, England’s powerhouse scourge of the Irish in Dublin 11 weeks ago, at loosehead prop for the first time in club colours since January.

That is quite a double whammy to boost any starting line-up while Munster conversely lost the services of in-form wing Keith Earls ahead of their record 14th Champions Cup semi-final.

So far so gloomy for those of a Munster persuasion but a hallmark of Johann van Graan’s side and their march to the last four this season has been its resilience and an ability to think on its feet allied as much as a rock-solid defence and menacing breakdown unit.

Their quarter-final victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield displayed those capabilities to roll with the punches perfectly as they lost Mike Haley before kick-off, Jean Kleyn to a Head Injury Assessment for 10 minutes, Tadhg Beirne to a yellow card soon after and then both Joey Carbery and Jack O’Donoghue were removed due to injury before half-time.

Yet Munster found a way to hold Edinburgh at bay for long periods and maximise the opportunities they created to claim that rarest of feats, an away win in the European knockout rounds.

That was built on a pool campaign that saw them overcome the champions of France and the English Premiership leaders in Castres and Exeter Chiefs respectively while Gloucester were put to the sword home and away.

In short, Munster have what it takes to scramble those Saracens stars if they hit the ground running and reach the heights they have scaled in moments across the campaign and that 41-15 mauling of Gloucester at Kingsholm in January has served as a reference point in terms of intensity and physicality for the way van Graan’s side will have to play if they are to overcome England’s most accomplished of European contenders of the past decade.

“If you want to win this competition you need an all-round game,” the Munster head coach said. “You can’t only defend or only attack or only kick or only use your set-piece, you’ve got to use an all-round game to get into a final.

That’s why it’s the Champions Cup, it’s the best against the best and it’s four teams left in this competition and obviously we’ll look to what we did, not only in that game but I think we’ve had a few very good performances, we’ve had a few excellent performances in terms of grit and getting through it.

No-one in the Munster camp is underestimating the size of the task in the Coventry sunshine this afternoon but everyone in the set-up is convinced they have never been better prepared to upset the odds and reach a first European final since 2008.

They will still need to be at their absolute best with Rory Scannell this week underlining the importance of an accurate and effective kick-chase against a Saracens’ backfield with a lethal counter-attacking threat while Conor Murray has also stressed the importance of nailing the opening quarter of the contest, something both Munster and Ireland have failed to do in matches of this magnitude, the national side against an England side packed with Saracens talent and his province in last year’s semi-final loss to Racing 92.

“Any high stakes game, the start is going to be huge, especially against them, they are a team a little like Edinburgh,” Murray said recently.

“They are a better side than Edinburgh. They’ll suffocate you in terms of possession, they’ll put you under huge pressure in the air, they’ve a really good kicking game, and then they’ve got people like Liam Williams and Strettle, when those guys get an opportunity they will pounce and will score points.

If you go behind, their game-plan, the way they play, if you chase a game against them, it can become a mountain to climb.

Saracens are not going to be a team easily knocked out of their stride, snuffing out an early Glasgow converted try to win their home quarter-final 56-27. Whatever Munster can throw at them, as was the case when they faced off in the 2017 semi-final, hooker Jamie George, one of 10 players who helped their club complete back-to-back title successes that season, is confident his side can cope in what he expects will be a closely-fought contest.

“For me, two teams who value very similar things in terms of their defence, their set-piece, how hard they work, how tight they are as a group. We value very similar things,” George said. “So I can see it being a very attritional game and we’re preparing ourselves for a tough challenge.”

George knows anything can happen in these one-off occasions. It will take something special, van Graan knows that, but the unexpected is what has made this competition the iconic club tournament in world rugby and Munster have what it takes to pull that kind of surprise off if they can execute to their full potential.

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