Plotting reality check for Sarries

Doug Howlett has been there before, enjoyed the highs of Test rugby and brought the feelgood factor into his club the following week.

So the Munster captain knows exactly how Saracens’ England contingent will be feeling ahead of Saturday’s Heineken Cup clash in Thomond Park.

Four Saracens backs, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, will have marched into training in north London on Monday flush with the glow of a memorable victory over world champions New Zealand and brimming with the confidence they will take into this weekend’s Pool A clash with Munster.

How that pride and self-belief will manifest itself at Thomond Park, however, is another question, but Howlett is preparing for every eventuality.

“It has always been a thrill to come back into your club environment,” the former All Black said yesterday. “I know when we get our international lads back, we welcome them and they love being back here as it is a boost for the squad.”

“I guess the whole (England) team obviously targeted that game and were under a lot of pressure. It was impressive, I must say. In terms of the Saracens players there, we keep an eye on them and they are in good form coming out of that tournament and into that game. They’ll be dangerous.”

As will Saracens as a whole, a team marshalled by Mark McCall that, missing their English Test contingent, still put away in-form Gloucester at the weekend to lift the club to second in the Aviva Premiership.

“They are a very good side. I saw the game 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.”

Saracens, as Howlett points out, are no longer the one-dimensional team that started this season and struggled to score tries.

“They have some exciting strike players out wide,” Howlett said. “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.”

After an opening loss in the Parisian rain to Racing Metro in October, Munster got their bid for a quarter-final spot back on track with a 33-0 home win over Edinburgh, a team Sarries had also blanked, 45-0 at Murrayfield the previous week.

While Munster were beating Edinburgh, Saracens took their home game with Racing to Brussels and ran out comfortable 30-13 winners. It sets up an intriguing back-to-back series between English and Irish rivals of old and Howlett is pleased with the way Munster are getting to grips with Penney’s new game plan and are coming to the boil with their league win last weekend over Glasgow.

“Leading into Saracens this week, it was great to have a few things come off for us against Glasgow.

“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.”

As for his beloved All Blacks, Howlett was as surprised as everyone else by their hammering at Twickenham last Saturday but refused to lay the blame on tiredness in the New Zealand legs after a long campaign.

“They are not using it as an excuse, it’s just the way the game went. You wouldn’t want to be the next international game the All Blacks play after having six or seven months to stew over that game.”

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