April has been a month that keeps on giving thus far; from Tiger Roll to Tiger Woods, sporting legends the world over have been etching their names into the history books over the past few weeks. On Saturday at 3pm, two icons of club rugby with pedigrees as rich as any in the land will be aiming to join the talismanic Tigers in the annals of athletic immortality.
Saracens and Munster battle it out this weekend at the rather less fabled Ricoh Arena with a place in next month’s final of Europe’s premier tournament up for grabs, and I personally can’t wait to see how this herculean clash will pan out.
The Stats Might Lie
These two heavyweights have faced off with each other 8 times in total, with Munster chalking up 5 victories to Saracens’ 3. The latest meeting came in 2017 where the circumstances were almost identical to those awaiting us this weekend: a European Cup last four showdown in Dublin with a berth in the final at stake.
That year it was Saracens who triumphed, with Owen Farrell leathering over 16 points in a brutally efficient 26-10 victory for the London side that set them on their way to lifting the crown for the second time in their history.
This will be Saracens’ sixth European semi-final appearance in seven years, an outstanding feat given how just how competitive this tournament has become in recent years with the emergence of French financial powerhouses Toulon and Racing Metro.
Munster are no slouches themselves in this competition: they have reached more European semis (14) than any other team in history and also boast a brace of title, although admittedly the men from Limerick have not lifted the trophy since 2008.
In a delicious twist of fate, the Irish side beat Saries 18-16 in the semi-final that year at - you guessed it - the Ricoh Arena. The ensuing eleven-year fallow period has been painful for Munster’s faithful throng of supporters, thousands of whom will make the short hop across the Irish sea on Saturday hoping to paint the Ricoh red once more.
Meanest Defence Meets Flawless Attack
A defence tighter than Manu Tuilagi’s groin and an astute kicking game have been the foundations upon which their impressive run to the semi-finals has been built.
Their thwarting of free-scoring Edinburgh last time out saw international chop tackling champions Peter O’Mahoney and CJ Stander fell more oaks than a lumberjack on speed, and their services will be needed on Saturday like never before if they are to stop high flying Saracens from reaching a third final in four years.
The Munster Red Wall has been harder to break down this campaign than the dams over the Ruhr in WW2, shipping an eye-wateringly stingy 12 points per game on average thus far and breaking down wave after wave of fruitless opposition assaults.
Mark McCall may not be Barnes Wallis but he has two bouncing bombs of his own capable of shattering any defence in Billy and Mako Vunipola, whilst mazy runners such as Liam Williams and Alex Goode can score tries from anywhere on the pitch.
Sarries are the tournament’s top scorers this term, averaging more points and tries per game than any other team, and the manner in which they dismantled a decent Glasgow Warriors side 56-27 in their home quarter-final was frankly frightening at times.
Something’s got to give.
Sarries Must Stop Turnover Titans
Munster have turned over more ball than Darren O’Shea has had hot dinners.
To be slightly more precise, a staggering 56 steals, more than any other team in the tournament thus far. Leading the way has been Tadgh Beirne, who has pilfered the egg from the oppo’s hands on 14 separate occasions alone.
If Saracens are to get into their free-flowing stride, they’ll need the likes of Maro Itoje and George Kruis to be at their unrelentingly physical best at the breakdown in the face of Munster’s bruising backrow bandits.
As has become the norm these days, the tackle area will be a game within a game here. Whichever side wrestles the upper hand at ruck time will be in pole position to leave the pitch victorious on Saturday.
Composure, Composure. And More Composure.
Top level games are always tight and cagey affairs. Both Ireland and England came up short in the Six Nations due to some fuzzy thinking whilst Wales held their nerve in the very tightest moments.
Big game experience counts for everything when the going gets tough and Saracens possess it in spades. They have leaders and battle-hardened internationals everywhere you look: from Jamie George and Maro Itoje in the engine room to Owen Farrell at 10 and Brad Barrit in midfield.
Munster, in turn, have their own trusted Lions lieutenants in Conor Murray, CJ Stander and O’Mahoney on whom they can call to deliver an outstanding piece of skill or a bit of magic in the crunch moments.
It is one sport’s greatest clichés, but delivering under pressure is what it’s all about in these winner-takes-all knockout games.
Sarries have gone further than their Irish counterparts in recent years but you write Munster off at your peril; the men from the south of the Emerald Isle have an almost mythical status when it comes to the European Cup, producing miracle performances from the very depths of their souls to snatch victory from defeat and it would take a brave man (or an idiot like me) to bet against them somehow emerging triumphant.
Saracens have been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week: talk of salary cap violations and tone-deaf social media shenanigans from Billy Vunipola have been unwelcome distractions and the players will hankering to let their rugby do the talking this week.
Great sides harness a siege mentally when the sharks begin to circle, and that’s why I’m backing Saracens to channel that negativity into producing a huge performance to edge Munster out in what should be a fascinating contest on Saturday.
Saracens to win by 6
Need to find a pub showing Champions Cup rugby this weekend? Follow the link, pick your fixture and search by location to see the best rugby pubs near you.