Munster’s game has al ways revolved around a rock solid set piece and a powerful line-out maul.
Since the retirement of Marcus Horan and John Hayes, Munster’s scrum relied, almost exclusively, on BJ Botha performing at tight head. The only problem here was that referees didn’t always agree with the technique employed by the Springbok and occasionally that led to countless penalties being awarded against him.
The growing maturity of Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin at loosehead coupled with the emergence of John Ryan as an international quality tight head prop has served to reignite Munster’s scrum prowess and offer the ideal platform to launch CJ Stander over the gain line.
The challenge today is that Saracens are equally well served in this area. Just look at their options at tight-head prop alone with Argentina’s Juan Figallo and two Springboks, Vincent Koch and Petrus du Plessis, at their disposal. Figallo doesn’t even make the bench.
Five of the Saracens pack were selected by Warren Gatland to tour with the Lions, including the second-row pairing of George Kruis and Maro Itoje. I can already visualise the Munster front five in a huddle with a disgruntled Donnacha Ryan urging Niall Scannell and John Ryan to bury their immediate opponents in New Zealand-bound Jamie George and Mako Vunipola. You can also be sure that Ryan will spend the day in the faces of that new Lions second row pairing.
The contest up front is likely to be explosive, especially as Itoje and new Lions No 8 Billy Vunipola are a bit too lippy for my liking. Can you imagine how Peter O’Mahony is going to react to the verbal taunting that pair regularly subject their opponents to?
It didn’t work when they last visited Dublin with England and Munster won’t put up with it today. Any effort Stander and O’Mahony make in attempting to bond with their new Lions teammates will be reserved, at best, for the post match reception and even then things are likely to be a bit frosty.
The proficiency of the Saracens lineout under the direction of Kruis and their ability to attack the opposition throw is sure to challenge Munster in an area they are used to dominating. Saracens enjoyed a 100% return from this sector against Glasgow in the quarter-final and boast a 93% success across 20 Aviva Premiership games.
Munster will need to be primed and ready here in order to enjoy their usual return in terms of clean ball and maul efficiency. Munster invoke memories of the glory days by fielding an all-Irish international pack against an opposition buoyed with a quintet of Lions.
Brace yourself for one hell of a battle that will dictate what develops in terms of controlling territory and breakdown impact.
This contest brings together the two best defences in their respective domestic leagues, which should make tries hard to come by. Saracens built their culture and identity around a self-styled ‘Wolf Pack’ defence, designed by their former defence coach Paul Gustard. If proved so successful that Eddie Jones immediately promoted Gustard to his coaching staff when appointed England boss.
Taken from the marines, the message is simple. The strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf. Defensively they hunt as one when the opposition have the ball and stay connected. That gives them strength and unity.
The system relies on a very aggressive line speed, excellent decision making - with a licence to break the line and close off an attack in the knowledge that the rest of the defensive line will be in behind them. Adaptability and clear communication is the key, sometimes drifting, sometimes blitzing. Everyone focuses on the ball, buys into the system and follows through.
Prior to resting eight players against Northampton last Sunday, Saracens had only conceded 20 tries in 19 Aviva Premiership games. Defence is the foundation of their game. Munster need to find a way to take them out of that comfort zone.
The most striking improvement in Munster’s game this season revolves around their defensive understanding and solidity. That was nurtured under the meticulous tuition of Jacques Nienaber, whom Rassie Erasmus made a condition of him taking the Munster job. He has proved an inspired appointment. Munster have only conceded five tries in the seven Champions Cup outings to date this season. Key to this has been the solidity and understanding developed in midfield between Niall Scannell and Jaco Taute. Scannell’s availability after what looked a nasty injury against Ulster last weekend is a huge boost.
Francis Saili is a great option to have off the bench but he must curtail his habit of shooting out of the line without making the desired impact. Nienaber will earn his corn today if he can devise a way to curtail a very clever Saracens attacking strategy built around a brilliant mix of dummy runners, screen passes and deft grubber kicks.
It is unfair to reduce any game of this nature down to the respective input and effectiveness of any individual but, in the continued absence of Conor Murray, Tyler Bleyendaal’s head-to- head with Owen Farrell will provide a cameo of how their respective teams are performing.
Farrell is the key figure for Saracens, the individual that makes them tick. He may have been selected in midfield for both England and the Lions but, by his own admission, he is first and foremost a No 10. He thrives on responsibility and has already achieved so much - 52 caps and a second Lions tour - for a 25-year-old.
Likewise, it is impossible to understate the impact Blayendaal has had on Munster’s excellent season to date. His basics are excellent, his place kicking and distribution superb while he also has the vision to weigh up his best option under pressure.
Of even more importance, he appears to have big match temperament. How else do you account for his faultless display - his most polished in a Munster jersey to date - against Glasgow in the most pressurised of all situations on the day after Anthony Foley’s funeral.
His impact today is totally dependent on the ability of his forwards to generate quick ball and put him on the front foot. As Saracens are sure to target Duncan Williams — especially with no recognised scrum half cover on the bench — much will depend on the ability of the Cork man to maintain the quality of service he has been providing all season.
Perhaps the biggest factor of all will be the composure and mentality both sides bring to the contest. Saracens have a proven track record in big games away from home in recent seasons. Today will be different however as there should be close to 45,000 fanatic Munster supporters in full voice at the Aviva Stadium.
England couldn’t cope with the collective mayhem thrown at them, on and off the field, when they played here last March. The England contingent on the Wasps side failed to learn from that experience when they returned to the scene of the crime when facing Leinster in the quarter-final at the same venue.
I suspect Saracens are made of sterner stuff and will be in a better position to deal with everything thrown at them. Everything needs to align for Munster go win this one, for Stander and Scannell to be 100% fit and for the team, as a collective, to produce a season’s best.
Munster’s standing in the game globally has been built around delivering special performances on special days. Today is one such occasion.
A win here would surpass the achievement of beating Toulouse in that breakthrough semi-final in Bordeaux back in 2000. The odds are stacked against them but Munster wouldn’t have it any other way.