The top two teams in Pool 1 of the Heineken Cup will collide at Thomond Park tonight, with Munster looking to overcome a Saracens side that welcomes back a number of England’s All Black conquerors.
HEINEKEN CUP POOL 1: Saturday, December 8
MUNSTER (2nd) v SARACENS (1st), Thomond Park, 6pm (live Sky Sports 1/HD1/Newstalk/highlights TG4)
Team News: There are no great surprises in the Munster team selected for Saturday’s Heineken Cup round 3 encounter with Saracens at Thomond Park, even if there are seven changes to the side that started against Edinburgh in the previous round.
Two of those changes are positional while three players who start against Saracens – James Coughlan, Ronan O’Gara and Keith Earls – missed out last time through injury.
Felix Jones, who had an injury-disrupted start to the season, will make his second Heineken Cup start for the province at full-back, linking up with captain Doug Howlett and Simon Zebo in a talent-laden back-three.
Earls returned to the outside centre berth against Glasgow Warriors last weekend after the November internationals and he retains that jersey at the expense of Casey Laulala, who offers a very potent back option from the bench.
And with back-rowers Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall and Tommy O’Donnell all on the injury list, opportunity knocks for David O’Callaghan who has been handed the blindside berth for what will be his first Heineken Cup start.
O’Callaghan, a 22 year old Development-contracted player from Youghal, County Cork, came on as a replacement in the final pool game last season against Northampton Saints.
This season the promising youngster has been a regular wearer of the number 6 jersey, starting in seven RaboDirect PRO12 matches and being on bench duty against Racing Metro 92 and Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup.
Given the blight on the back rows, Coughlan’s return is particularly opportune. He has confounded the medics by returning from a groin tear way ahead of schedule. He proved his fitness with a 75-minute shift against Glasgow.
Recent Ireland debutant David Kilcoyne will make his third successive European start in the front row, less than a week before his 24th birthday.
At the other end of the scale it will be out-half O’Gara’s 106th appearance in the Heineken Cup. His record points tally for the tournament currently stands at 1303 points.
Meanwhile, South African number 8 Ernst Joubert will make his 100th appearance for Saracens after being named to start the Pool 1 tie in Limerick.
Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall welcome back the England quintet of Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode, Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola into the matchday 23.
Barritt, Ashton, Goode and Farrell start the match in the visitors’ back-line while Vunipola is named on the bench.
Experienced duo Kelly Brown and Schalk Brits also return to the side after being rested for last weekend’s 28-23 Aviva Premiership win over Gloucester at Vicarage Road.
Adam Powell, Jackson Wray, Jacques Burger, former Munster back rower Justin Melck, Alistair Hargreaves and Joe Maddock all miss out through injury.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Doug Howlett (capt), Keith Earls, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, David O’Callaghan, Peter O’Mahony, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Damien Varley, Wian du Preez, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Paddy Butler, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Casey Laulala.
SARACENS: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Charlie Hodgson, Neil de Kock; Rhys Gill, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick (capt), Mouritz Botha, Kelly Brown, Will Fraser, Ernst Joubert.
Replacements: John Smit, Mako Vunipola, Petrus du Plessis, George Kruis, Andy Saull, Richard Wigglesworth, Joel Tomkins, David Strettle.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant Referees: Christophe Berdos, Cyril Lafon (both France)
Television Match Official: Jean-Pierre Pellaprat (France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 4/7; Draw: 22/1; Saracens to win: 6/4
Pre-Match Quotes: James Downey (Munster) – “You can look at the footage on Saracens and prepare yourself but it comes down to how we play and we just need to look after that side of things.
“They have a strong back-three and they are pretty strong all over. They’ve a good pack and they are well drilled and know what they are doing.
“I suppose with a couple of new signings they have expanded their game a little bit. They are a quality side, and they have some (England) internationals coming back with a good buzz after beating the All Blacks, so we will have to watch them carefully.”
BJ Botha (Munster) – “‘Killer’ (David Kilcoyne) is hungry, he’s aggressive and that shows in his play. Yeah, there’s lots of room for improvement but he has improved (already) remarkably from where he has come from. From my experience he has always been a player who was going to push through the ranks.
“We have our own way to critique our scrum, we obviously knew from within that our performance against the Scarlets needed improvement, so we upped out game and put in a massive performance against Glasgow, particularly the tight five. Now we need to build on that progress.
“This is a massive game, Saracens are a massive side in England – they’re not second in the Aviva Premiership for nothing, so this will be right up there.
“They’re leading the pool, so we know what we have to do this week and we won’t be looking any further than that, that’s where our eyes are set at the moment.
“We pride ourselves on our record at home and we want to put in a great performance. I think that’s our motivation – obviously in the back of the head you want to have the result, but it will come down to performance and if you get the performance the result should look after itself.”
Current Form – Munster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 23-18 away to Edinburgh; Won 19-6 at home to Benetton Treviso; Lost 20-19 away to Ulster; Won 33-13 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 30-15 away to the Ospreys; Lost 30-21 away to Leinster; (Heineken Cup): Lost 22-17 away to Racing Metro 92; Won 33-0 at home to Edinburgh; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 29-3 at home to Zebre; Won 24-18 away to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 13-6 at home to the Scarlets; Won 31-3 at home to Glasgow Warriors
Saracens – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 40-3 at home to London Irish; Won 23-16 away to Sale Sharks; Drew 9-9 at home to Leicester Tigers; Lost 14-12 away to Exeter Chiefs; Won 18-16 away to Harlequins; Won 28-23 away to London Welsh; (Heineken Cup): Won 45-0 away to Edinburgh; Won 30-13 at home to Racing Metro 92; (Aviva Premiership): Won 16-3 away to Northampton Saints; Won 29-24 at home to London Wasps; (LV= Cup): Won 38-21 at home to Leicester Tigers; Lost 25-23 away to Sale Sharks; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 12-3 away to Worcester Warriors; Won 28-23 at home to Gloucester
Previous European Meetings: 3
Sunday, November 28, 1999 – Pool 4 – Saracens 34 Munster 35, Vicarage Road
Saturday, January 8, 2000 – Pool 4 – Munster 31 Saracens 30, Thomond Park
Sunday, April 27, 2008 – Semi-final – Saracens 16 Munster 18, Ricoh Arena
Match Facts And Figures –
– Saracens have a 100% success rate in lineouts this season (on their own throw), retaining ball on all 23 throws so far as well as stealing a competition high six opposition throws
– Munster are also joint-top of the lineouts stolen chart, averaging three per game themselves
– Munster have retained possession at 97% of rucks and mauls, a tournament high
– Charlie Hodgson is the top points scorer after two rounds, scoring 40 points so far including one try, seven conversions and seven penalties
Heineken Cup Records:
2011/12: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2008/09: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Reached the semi-finals
1998/99: Reached the quarter-finals
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D
2011/12: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2007/08: Reached the semi-finals
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 4