We prefer to examine the present day Munster, the side that played against Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester this season, rather than looking back to two years ago, writes Rob Cole.
The sound of Irishmen baying for blood isn’t going to bother Saracens in the slightest this weekend.
After all, they’ve been in the same position for the past two seasons in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall expects the Munster supporters hordes to outnumber his club’s fans at the Ricoh Arena this weekend in the first of the two semi-finals. Will it matter to them? Will it hell!
“Our supporters are great, but there is a good chance Munster will have more fans than us in Coventry this weekend. It is something we are used to,” said McCall.
“Two years ago there were probably 45,000 Munster fans at the Aviva Stadium when we last met and it was the same for the quarter-final against Leinster last year. Our group of players relished that and loved both occasions.” They came out on top convincingly against Munster in the 2017 semi-final, winning 26-10, but were undone by Leinster last year when they lost their two-year grip on the title in a 30-19 defeat at the Aviva.
McCall is not one to look back. His focus is firmly fixed on the next game and the next trophy. There are two more in sight for his side as we approach the business end of this season — retaining the English Premiership crown they wrestled off Exeter Chiefs last season and a possible third Heineken Champions Cup crown in four years.
That is what drives on the best team in England, a side that has won seven major pieces of silverware in the past eight seasons. McCall has been the mastermind behind those four Premiership triumphs, the two European victories and an Anglo-Welsh Cup win and is hungry for more success.
“Pedigree really counts in this competition and Munster have had that for the past 20 years. Ours is more recent, but we are very proud of what we have achieved in the past six or seven years,” said McCall.
“We know Munster always grow a leg for Europe, but so do we. Our group sees the Heineken Champions Cup as the pinnacle of success and we want to win it again. It was a painful experience to lose the way we did to Leinster at the Aviva last year. Our players have grown to love this competition and there was definitely a renewed hunger this season.”
Even though Munster are almost perennial semi-finalists — this will be their 14th visit to the final four against Sarries’ seventh — all the experience at the tail end of the tournament is with the English giants.
They have no fewer than 19 players in their squad who have at least one winners medal, while only Keith Earls (2008) and Joey Carberry (Leinster 2018) can boast the same — although neither of them got onto the field in their respective finals.
That’s why McCall, who has guided his side into the semi-finals with an unbeaten run of seven games, has been looking at the way in which Munster have performed this season, rather than harking back to days of old.
“It is always difficult to say if a side has moved on, but we can see great improvements from the team we played two years ago. Munster are very well organised and we know we are in for a really difficult challenge,” said McCall.
“We prefer to examine the present day Munster, the side that played against Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester this season, rather than looking back to two years ago. They are very difficult to break down, have a strong set-piece and make it difficult for you to get quick ball against them.
“They did a great job against Exeter, who are flying in our competition (the Premiership). It was a hell of an achievement to hold them out for 68 minutes after conceding a 12th minute try in Round 5. It’s going to be a matter of winning the inches before the yards and then taking advantage of that. It’s going to be a really close contest.”
Since getting Saracens back into the Heineken Champions Cup in the 2010-11 season, McCall has taken his team to three finals, won two of them, and won 71% of his 70 games. Not only that, Saracens joined Toulouse (1997), Leicester Tigers (2001 and 2002), Wasps (2007) and RC Toulon (2014) in completing the European Cup and domestic league double in 2016.
They remained unbeaten over two seasons as they became only the fourth team to win successive titles. When they won all nine matches in 2016 they became the first team to do that. They matched Munster Rugby’s tournament record of 13 successive victories before they drew with the Scarlets in Round 5 in 2017. They then went on to extend their unbeaten run to 20 matches and are the only unbeaten team this season. It is going to take more than the exhortations of the fabled Munster fans to get their team across the line this weekend.