So, they meet again. Two years on from a semi-final encounter in Dublin that has proven significant for both sides, Munster and Saracens will be reunited at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena tomorrow for another Heineken Champions Cup knockout tussle.
The 2017 contest was won a lot more comprehensively by Saracens than the 26-10 scoreline suggests and Munster’s performance at the Aviva Stadium has loomed large in many minds since both clubs advanced to the last four with quarter-final wins three weeks ago.
For Saracens, coached by Mark McCall, the memories of that day will simply be of a job well done and a box ticked along the way to successfully defending their crown as champions of Europe. It was a masterclass in game management, suffocating defence and maximising the opportunities they created. In Munster, the game has become a line in the sand, the day the emotions that had surfaced following head coach Anthony Foley’s sudden death in Paris the previous October and driven a grieving squad to Herculean achievements began to subside just a little. Not only that, Saracen’s second-half domination of then-director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’s side and Munster’s inability to find solutions to counteract it brought the realisation that fundamental change to the gameplan was essential.
We need to add strings to our bow, was Erasmus’s assessment but the South African was already planning his exit along with defence coach Jacques Nienaber and the long goodbye into the following season undermined stability and stifled the ability to develop, with replacement head coach Johann van Graan arriving mid-season in November 2017 and understandably adopting a holding pattern for the rest of the campaign. It was some achievement, then, to return to the semis last season but defeat to Racing 92 in Bordeaux and a subsequent, error-strewn Guinness PRO14 last-four loss to Leinster exposed similar faultlines.
So here we are again, with Munster back in the European semi-finals and a match-up that proved to be a catalyst for change 24 months ago.
Some observers still need convincing that van Graan and assistant coaches Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and JP Ferreira have instituted sufficient change to Munster’s approach but ask them, their players and opponents the same question and the responses are unequivocal.
A daily focus in training on rugby fundamentals, inspired by coaching missions to New Zealand for Flannery and Jones, a much-improved defence that has conceded the fewest tries (10) in the competition’s seven rounds to date, an increase in numbers representing the province in Ireland camps and the addition of skilful rugby brains to the playing staff last summer. All those factors have enabled van Graan to make what the coaching staff believe are significant strides in the evolution of the Munster gameplan without jettisoning the core values of the forward-oriented approach that served it so well in seasons past.
It has not gone unnoticed by Saracens, whose England and Lions hooker Jamie George said this week: “I think they’re a very different team to what they were then (in 2017). We’re expecting a very different team.
“Whenever you play against Munster, you recognise that they’re a team that values their set-piece. They’re an incredibly hard-working team and a very well-coached team. We’re aware of how tough a test that is going to be.
“At the same time, in terms of their attack, we’ve seen throughout the European competition how they’ve managed to break teams down going through phase after phase, but they’ve also got attacking runners from anywhere. It’s going to be an interesting challenge for us and one we’ve got to stay on top of.
“They were still a good team two years ago. They fight unbelievably well, don’t give away points very easily. Saw that in Kingsholm (at pool rivals Gloucester in round five), their fight on the line. It’s always something you’re made aware of when you watch Munster. Their attack runs well even though Joey Carbery might not be playing. And we all know how good their defence is so we know what a tough challenge it will be.”
Munster captain Peter O’Mahony credits the twin influences of new signings such as fly-half Carbery, struggling to be fit for tomorrow but with an in-form Tyler Bleyendaal likely to slot in, lock Tadhg Beirne, full-back Mike Haley and former All Black scrum-half Alby Mathewson, alongside the development and maturity of the players they joined as reasons underlining his assertion this side is a better unit than back then.
“The new guys have had a massive impact. I don’t have to name them off but obviously guys like Tadhg, Joey, Alby, these guys, there’s a group who’ve come in. The group that are here have learnt a huge amount and kicked on as well and we’ve found a good balance.
“Look at last weekend away in Treviso, a difficult place to go and play at the moment, playing very, very well and we had a younger team out, you know, guys who haven’t had a chance in a while and go behind, a super performance to get back into the game and end up winning that game. That gives us great confidence as a squad.
“You need a bit of luck with regard to fitness with guys being fit, certainly to win these competitions. You need a bit of luck in games but you need your squad to be fit and you need your squad to be playing and training well. Training well in particular, playing well is a given, training well is very important as well. We’re lucky we have that at the moment, the last four games we’ve won I think and that stands to you.
“They’ve certainly been an integral part of the kind of building of confidence and some good performances.”
Scrum-half Conor Murray, slowly coming back to his best form after a late start to his season due to a neck injury, also zoned in on Munster’s defence and the impact of van Graan getting a first full pre-season under his belt last summer.
“We’ve developed our game from what it was a couple of years ago. From a defensive level I think we’ve got better,” Murray said. “The players have a better understanding of how we want to defend and they drive it as much as JP does. I think Johann’s ideas and his ideas on attack and our phased play have been really good. I think we are stronger that way.
“Tadhg has added so much. The amount of times he gets on the ball, I don’t know how many attempts he has at turnovers during a game. He could have 20-odd attempts and he’ll definitely turn over three or four or five of them.
“Pete has had the season of his life so far and he’s turning over a similar amount of the ball as well. That relieves pressure, lets us get off the back foot and into the opposition half, get our own game up and running.
“I don’t really have to explain what Joey has done for us. I think everyone in the room knows that, how good he has been for us, Tyler (Bleyendaal) to come on and add that calmness and that know-how and just guide the team around has been very good.”
And what better way to prove it than on a fast, dry track at the Ricoh this weekend?