Sarries know they must win that early battle of wills
Third time lucky? Two English teams including the national XV have been sent packing from Dublin this season in no uncertain manner after tangling with pumpedup Irish opposition so we can safely assume that Saracens know what is awaiting them at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.
It could, should, be an epic between two very similar sides not prepared to give an inch and in its own way I expect it to match the Munster/Wasps epic of 2004 which probably remains the greatest single match in European Cup history. Possibly not quite so many tries and points as that try fest but a Test match in all but name.
Munster are on the march and no matter what the opposition – and Sarries have been the class team in Europe over the last two seasons – they will demand respect. Many talk about the Anthony Foley factor fuelling Munster this season and his passing certainly had a galvanising effect in the autumn but this is a quality Munster team that was always going to come good at some stage.
The raw emotion of October and November possibly kick-started Munster but as we approach late April those days are long gone.
No side with the likes of CJ Stander, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony leading the fight up front will be anything less than formidable while this season has seen Conor Murray reach a new career peak.
Tyler Bleyendaal has been unveiling his complete skillset at ten, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls provide the X-factor and unsung heroes such as South African midfield hardman Jaco Taute, speedster Darren Sweetnam and the phenomenally hard-working prop John Ryan are flexing their muscles. Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and his sidekick Jerry Flannery, meanwhile, have missed nothing and deserve much praise also.
Munster might win on Saturday FOR Anthony Foley but it won't be BECAUSE of the great man. If they win it will be because of their own Herculean efforts and because they were a better team than Saracens on the day. It’s worth remembering that at the end of the pool stages Munster were seeded second, one place ahead of Saracens. A notable effort considering they had both Leicester and Glasgow in their group.
The recent form line offers us few clues. Both qualified in fine style with just one defeat at the pool stage while both engaged top gear in the quarterfinals. Sarries bided their time for the first hour against a really good Glasgow Warriors before blowing them away in the final 20 to win 38-13 while it was almost a carbon copy at Thomond where Munster went to work in the closing stages to dismiss Toulouse 41-16. Classy performances both. The Saracens backroom staff miss nothing and you can be sure their number one message will be early intensity and a fast start.
England weren’t at the races in the opening quarter when they lost their chance of another Grand Slam while Wasps were dismantled in the first half hour against Leinster in their quarter-final with the match being lost there and then.
It's a different ball game when you play Irish sides in Ireland in a match that counts. Its a battle of wills every bit as much as a rugby match and Saracens need to go into street fighter mode. And that is a fine balance because you also need to play within the laws and keep 15 men on the field.
They need to get on the front foot and put some stick about rather than look to soak up early pressure, which appeared to be England and Wasps illadvised approach. Munster, roared on by the Red Army, will want to rip into Saracens from the off and it could be unsettling for them and their fans if Saracens launch themselves out of the blocks and start building an early score.
Easy on paper, of course, but devilishly difficult in reality. What it needs is for the likes of the aggressive Maro Itoje and the very physical Michael Rhodes to make their big hits and turnovers but to keep on the right side of the law while the brothers Vunipola must be at their animated but disciplined best.
In the backs, the hard hitting Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt must replicate that discipline and this is not the match for Chris Ashton to suddenly have one of his lapses that land him in trouble.
Anything less in the opening half hour or so will simply not suffice. Give this Munster side a 12-15 point start and they will be gone. Saracens must learn from England and Wasps mistakes. Equally if Saracens reach the half hour in the lead the smart money will be on them. Both sides are good front runners. If they get their noses in front they have the ruthlessness and defensives systems to close out games.
Aggressive: Maro Itoje must make his big hits