Written by Conal Lane
Far from a classic Thomond Park interprovincial dust up, nevertheless the men in red came through against Ulster last weekend. Perhaps the ideal preparation for what lies ahead this Saturday in Dublin. Yep, it’ll be a tough one, that much is guaranteed. As expected, Conor Murray is not fit to start, however Duncan Williams has been in outstanding form of late and I see no reason to fear the loss of the mercurially talented Murray. Munster have been in superb form of late, grinding out two PRO12 victories by the odd score against Glasgow & Ulster, allied with the 41-16 victory over Toulouse in the QF, the men in red can feel pretty confident in their chances of reaching a fifth European final.
Saracens are odds on favourites to defend their crown, and have been since before a ball was kicked in anger back in October. Quite rightly so too. Simply put, Mark McCall’s charges are the defending champions, playing in a European semi final for the fifth straight season, are part of a trio of runaway leaders at the summit of the English Premiership and have provided more players (six) to Warren Gatland’s 2017 Lions squad. They will be well aware of Munster’s pedigree and history in European competition and they will respect the same. However they will be far from awestruck or different in their quest to emulate Leicester, Leinster and Toulon in retaining their crown as kings of Europe
Munster: Peter O’Mahony
Captain fantastic, Peter O’Mahony is fresh from being named in Warren Gatlands merry band of men travelling to the land of the long white cloud this summer. Not that he’ll give much of a shit about that this Saturday, it’s all about the red of Munster. Since making his return from injury in the last number of weeks, O’Mahony has been a totemic figure to players and supporters of Munster (and indeed Ireland) alike. Gives 110% in every game he plays, belies his relatively slight stature for a 6 with fearsome aggression and athleticism second only to his predecessor as Munster captain. O’Mahony has instilled an Alex Ferguson-like sense of “we are never, ever beaten” into his club, and long may it continue.
Saracens: Owen Farrell
Is he a better 10 or 12? No matter what the number on his back, there is no doubting Owen Farrell’s class & talent. Recently shifted to the inside centre role for internationals to accommodate George Ford, Farrell actually started much of his international career in the 12 jersey with his Saracens team mate Brad Barritt at 13. The prospect of a Sexton/Farrell axis during the summer is positively mouthwatering but for now, Owen will be wearing the 10 jumper of Saracens. Top of the points charts this season with a whopping 97, he has slotted over 20 penalties, 16 conversions and dotted down a single try. Munster will hope to keep his prolific scoring under wraps this Saturday, but Farrell will have other ideas.
There is no doubt that the passing of the great man has galvanized this team. They now have something more to play for than silverware or accolades. They have the memory of one Anthony Foley, the man who won Europe’s premier competition twice in three seasons after suffering a pair of heartbreaking defeats within the same time frame. New signing Jaco Taute found out first hand what donning the Munster jersey meant to the rest of the squad in the pool stage fixture against Glasgow. The level of commitment and fight shown by him in the wake of Axel’s passing was as if he were Limerick born and bred. 23 men will step onto the Aviva Stadium turf along with the backing of an entire province, this is the situation that faces Saracens come 3:15pm Saturday. The great man will no doubt be keeping an eye on proceedings, and woe betide any opponent who believes they are greater than the occasion.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O’Callaghan, Jean Deysel, Ian Keatley, Francis Saili, Darren Sweetnam.
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (capt), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Titi Lamositele, Petrus Du Plessis, Jim Hamilton, Schalk Burger, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Chris Wyle
No one could have written this script. A historic double on the cards after losing a legend of Munster, Irish and indeed World rugby. Saracens are probably the premier club in Europe this season, but they will meet their match this Saturday.
Munster by 3