The phrase ‘make or break’ has been attached to many of the Heineken Cup round 3 matches, and that is certainly the case down Thomond Park way for the meeting of Munster and Saracens.
Having lost their Pool 1 opener away to Racing Metro 92, Munster are still playing catch-up on unbeaten leaders Saracens who hammered Edinburgh 45-0 before taking a 30-13 verdict over Racing in Brussels.
Damien Varley’s injury-time try clinched a much-needed bonus point for Munster in their 33-0 victory over Edinburgh last time out in Europe, moving the province into second place ahead of these intriguing back-to-back Anglo-Irish battles.
Despite a series of back row injuries and the ongoing absence of pack leader Paul O’Connell, the first leg in Limerick this Saturday evening comes at a good time for the Reds according to their captain Doug Howlett.
“Leading into Saracens this week, it was great to have a few things come off for us against Glasgow,” said the winger, with a nod to last Saturday’s 31-3 dismissal of Glasgow Warriors in the league.
“We’re making progress. The finer things are starting to come off and we’re working on some of the subtleties we didn’t quite have earlier on. The progress is pleasing so the results to match would do just fine for us.”
Munster are certainly in free-scoring form at their Limerick base, having averaged 29 points from their first five outings there this season.
But Howlett is quick to acknowledge the quality of this Saturday’s opponents with Sarries currently sitting second in the Aviva Premiership. Their starting line-up will also be boosted by the return of some of England’s All Black conquerors.
“Saracens are a very good side. I saw their game (last week) against Gloucester and they were impressive, and they’ll have a big contingent coming back from international duty as well, buoyed by their big victory. They’re on a high at the moment.
“They have some exciting strike players out wide. Obviously Charlie Hodgson is back now and he pulls the strings quite well at number 10. He has a great pass and a good kick as well. Across the pitch we are expecting to be challenged.
“I think they have a few styles they can play. They can play a tight game, have a great kicking game and they have an expansive group of players that like to run.”
IRB Player of the Year nominee Owen Farrell and fellow Saracens backs Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt and Alex Goode will be brimming with confidence after helping England secure a shock 38-21 victory over New Zealand.
Howlett said their presence will no doubt ‘boost’ the Sarries squad, adding that it is always ‘a thrill’ to come back into your club environment after such a result at Test level.
The former New Zealand winger is one of few survivors from Munster’s last European encounter with Saracens, the 2008 semi-final win at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
Of the fifteen players who started for Munster that day, six of them have since retired – including the entire back row of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy – and three more are playing their rugby elsewhere now.
The province stood firm for an 18-16 triumph with Ronan O’Gara scoring a try, a conversion and two penalties, teeing up their memorable crowning against Toulouse in Cardiff the following month.
Current Munster boss Rob Penney has mounting back row injuries to cope with. South African recruit CJ Stander is the latest casualty with a broken hand.
On the positive side, James Coughlan’s quicker-than-expected recovery from a torn groin is a welcome one, the number 8 having started the Glasgow game after more than two months out.
Ireland scrum half Conor Murray will also be fit to face Sarries after training successfully in Limerick on Tuesday. He had been nursing a knee injury.
Howlett says they have the resources to deal with the back row crisis, insisting: “The pleasing thing is we have a quality player in James Coughlan coming back along with Peter O’Mahony and Dave O’Callaghan, who has had some fantastic games this year for us.
“James is a quality player and is back unexpectedly after being ruled out for three or four months and got through a lot of work last week.”
However, a back problem is keeping former skipper Paul O’Connell on the sidelines and it is unclear when the talismanic lock will be fit to play again.
“I haven’t spoken to Paul. I saw him this morning and in terms of his injury the line has been he’ll be ready when he is ready,” added Howlett.
“We have been in this situation for a few weeks now with Paul being missing. He has added a lot during training and meetings.”