Munster and Saracens renew old European rivalry

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Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final, Ricoh Arena, Coventry, England 20/4/2019 Saracens vs Munster Saracens' Alex Lozowski and Conor Murray of Munster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

MUNSTER faces into a must-win game at Thomond Park in the Champions Cup against holders Saracens in a mouth-watering clash. Johann van Graan’s men know that anything other than a home victory could mean the end of their hopes of making this season’s knockout stages.

Van Graan is expecting a massive challenge from a Saracens side that have made more news off the pitch in recent weeks and is relishing the pressure that comes with such a big game.

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“That’s why we are in the game, for weeks like this. You enjoy every week and it’s a different challenge each week.

“It started off with a Pro14 game at home, then South Africa and back, a few home games, a few away games, two weeks of European rugby, back into Pro14 and now back into a double-header.

The previous two (double header’s) that I have been involved in were fascinating battles and this year won’t be any different. It’s brilliant to be involved in the occasion. It’s just like Test Match rugby. I’m really enjoying it.”

Saracens have been in four finals since 2014, winning three and went into this season as champions following a victory over Leinster. However, their success in recent years hangs over a cloud following an investigation into business partnerships between chairman Nigel Wray and some of the club’s players that saw the club fined £5.35 million and docked 35 points in their home competition for salary cap breaches over three seasons.

European Rugby Heineken Champions Cup ,The Arena Le Defence Paris 17/11/2019
Racing 92 vs Saracens
Saracens head coach Mark McCall after the match
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

On the pitch, they still remain a potent threat and returned
to European form with a thumping 44-3 win over Ospreys in their last game. They
also boast nine of the England squad that reached the World Cup Final in Japan.
Van Graan admits that they have strength in depth all over their squad.

“They had 17 players that went to the World Cup and are a very experienced squad. A lot of continuity and some incredible lineout threats with Itoje, Kruis and Skelton. A very good scrum and a very good kicking game from nine and 10.

“Obviously, they way they exit and how hard they work and then they suffocate you in all areas of the game. They wait for mistakes and are very good straight after half time. Last season (Champions Cup semi final) it was 12-9 at half time and literally from the kick off they kept the ball for 21 or 23 phases and scored a try.

“They have no weaknesses in that squad. It’s virtually a test team. They have pulled up a very impressive squad over the years. A very good coaching side. They are European champions because of the squad they have.”

As van Graan mentioned, the sides last met in the last four of the competition back in April – a game that Saracens won 32-16. That was the most recent of clashes, but the sides have had some titanic tussles over the years.

One fixture from the Thomond Park annals is from January 2000 when Munster beat Saracens 31-30 thanks to a late Keith Wood try and a Ronan O’Gara conversion that hit the upright on it’s way over.

8/1/2000 European Cup
Munster vs Saracens
Munster’s Ronan O’Gara converts
©INPHO/Patrick Bolger

That win helped Munster’s towards their first European
Final, but Sarries have had the better of things in recent times. Home fans
will be hoping for a similar vintage from the first of their big back to back
games this time around.

Munster will be without Tyler Bleyendaal and Jeremy Loughman
for the game due to neck and ankle injuries respectively. Joey Carbery is on
the comeback trail, but it is likely to be at the end of the month before he
has any chance of returning to on field action. Munster v Saracens kicks off on
Saturday evening at 5:30pm and is live on BT Sport.

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