JOE’s Champions Cup Preview: Munster v Saracens
Munster take on Saracens in the second round of games in the Champions Cup on Friday night in what will be a huge game in deciding who will qualify from this group.
Munster snatched a last minute win against Sale Sharks on Saturday to grab the bare minimum win they needed by 27-26. Meanwhile Saracens achieved a bonus point victory at home to Clermont Auvergne by 30-23.
A last minute win can't paper over the cracks that were clearly visible in the Munster performance. Defensively they were like a junior side in the first half and they really struggled with the pace of Sale’s play in the first half. Cipriani was sending his centres through gaping holes at will and at times you really feared that this game was going to slip away from Munster.
Cipriani caused huge problems for Munster at the weekend
Saracens were impressive in their win against Clermont, not because they were emphatic in their victory but because of how tight the game was. They played out a rip-roaring contest against a side equally as good as them and they came out on top. Clermont shrugged away claims that they don’t travel well and provided a tough test for the English side. Sarries showed why they reached the final last year and why they are in a good position to challenge in this year’s competition.
Munster have made two changes to the team that defeated Sale with James Cronin and BJ Botha coming into the side in place of Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer. Surprisingly for Munster, these are the only changes to the side.
Many would have expected changes in the midfield following a leaky performance from Hurley and Smith at 12 and 13. Johnny Leota and Sam Tuitupou had a field day on Saturday and on Friday they will be facing a more accomplished pairing of Argentine Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt.
JJ Hanrahan can feel unlucky not to make the starting team in some capacity after an impressive cameo at the weekend. He was involved heavily in three key attacks for the province upon his introduction including his fantastic kick in the closing minutes to establish field position in the Sale half.
Man of the match CJ Stander is retained at number eight following his barnstorming performance on Saturday and he will surely be in for an even tougher test on Friday when he faces off against ball-carrying powerhouse Billy Vunipola. The big English number eight will need to be tackled low and early to prevent him building up any head of steam.
Interestingly from the Sarries back-row, and worrying for everybody else, he showed some deft off-loading and handling against Clermont last weekend. A sign of things to come from the number eight?
Billy vunipola will be a huge threat for Munster on Friday
Saracens have reinstated Owen Farrell at out-half following his return from injury while Marcelo Bosch replaces Chris Wyles in midfield. Farrell will surely get a warm (not so warm probably) reception from the Thomand Park faithful on Friday but if they give away any penalties within 50 metres, he will punish them.
How will the game pan out on Friday?
If Munster can fix their watery defence then they have a good chance of toppling Saracens on Saturday. If the lapses were down to concentration, then they will surely be much tighter on Friday. Smith needs a big game to silence his doubters and an impressive performance from Denis Hurley wouldn't go amiss either. Saracens have an incredibly stingy defence so Munster will need to take their chances when they come.
It will be a huge bruising battle up front between two packs who are just going to slug it out for 80 minutes and Munster have the players to do this. Saracens are missing dynamic ball carrier Schalk Brits with a knee injury and he will be a huge loss because he is such a leader for the Saracens team.
But despite all this, we think Saracens will do a smash and grab on Friday night. Munster have been extremely inconsistent of late and are beginning to resemble the French teams whose biggest problem was crippling inconsistency.
Saracens by seven or less…
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Denis Hurley, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony (c), 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Dave Casey, 1 James Cronin
Replacements: 16 Eusebio Guinazu, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Gerhard van den Heever.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Richard Barrington
Replacements: 16 Scott Spurling, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Date: Friday, October 24
Venue: Thomond Park
Kickoff: 19:45 local (18:45 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Salem Attalah (France), Mathieu Delpy (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)