The province may have the vast majority of a potential 52,500 sell-out crowd in Dublin turning the Aviva Stadium into a sea of red and giving his players twice the passionate support they can provide on a big Champions Cup night at Thomond Park. But the quality of the opposition standing between Munster and a first final since 2008 will serve as the latest, most significant litmus test of the progress made since Erasmus’s arrival last summer.
When asked whether the 2016 English and European champions posed Munster’s most difficult challenge of the South African’s first season as director of rugby, Erasmus needed no time to pause or reflect.
“Definitely, without a doubt,” he said and offered their Aviva Premiership victory on the road against Northampton Saints on Sunday as sufficient evidence to rest his case. Saracens, who had rested England stars Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, and Mako Vunipola for the trip to Milton Keynes, and kept Billy Vunipola and Chris Ashton on the bench, had trailed a hungry Saints side for virtually all of the game, slipping to a 25-12 deficit before staging a late charge to win 27-25.
“The way they won the game, I think that’s more important than who was rested,” the Munster boss added.
“To come back from that score, it just shows you, when a team has been in a few play-offs and won titles and double titles like they’ve done, they’ve got that emotional experience and intelligence and calmness.
“They’ve been there before and that will always be biggest challenge on Saturday, that they’ve been there and done it and they won’t be overawed about the situation. Our big challenge would be to say ‘hey, this is a nice experience and a privilege for us to go and perform. If it’s for or against us, we’re not sure how far we’ve grown this year but it shouldn’t be daunting. It should be really nice to go and see how we could do.”
Sarries’ big-game experience compares more than favourably to a new-look Munster side short on European knockout rugby having failed to get out of their pool in the previous two seasons and Erasmus recognises that he and his coaches have to keep the players on an even keel between eagerness to perform and the sort of calm-headedness to find the clinical edge needed to stop the English powerhouse in its tracks.
“I guess that’s the challenge, to stay on task and things that worked for us, keep on doing them. We have to focus on them, if we don’t stop the things they are doing well, we’ll lose the game. They really do things tremendously well.
“One of the things they do well is the intensity they put on whatever you’re trying to do, they match that with a lot of intensity. I must say, when I look at Saracens, apart from their tactical and individual brilliance, every game they’ve got higher intensity than the opposition.
“I guess that’s because they’ve got a squad that’s been building over years and the can rotate and lose players and the next guy will step in. That will probably be the biggest thing. I wouldn’t worry about our guys being overly motivated because you’re going to need that to match Saracens.”
Despite the concerns over Conor Murray’s inability to shake off his shoulder stinger injury, Erasmus is more than confident stand-in scrum-half Duncan Williams is up to the task having stepped into the nine jersey with distinction for the quarter-final victory over Toulouse on April 1. Williams, who celebrated his 31st birthday yesterday, looks set to recover from the groin “niggle” which forced his withdrawal from last Saturday’s win over Ulster and Erasmus said: “He is really ready.
“He (brings) experience. How many games has he played for us, just this season? How many try-saving tackles has he made? I think, for me, he is one of the unsung heroes. I’ve said it a few times, I know there are people who differ (in their opinion) but I see him sitting here doing video sessions and his contribution, on and off the field and his knowledge of the game is really top notch. He’ll put up a good show and I have full confidence in him.”
Asked about the qualities of his opposite number, another unsung hero in Richard Wigglesworth, Erasmus broadened the debate.
“Look, I think if you take out the team, one, two, the 23 who is going to play and start comparing them, this Saracens team, with (Munster) nine months ago, you would have said ‘this is not going to work’, ‘this is not going to work’ and ‘this guy is better’ and ‘that guy is better’.
“The thing that Duncan brings to the table is sometimes the non-flashy stuff which really gels a team together so a direct match-up, to do a comparison between the two of them would not be wise. Wigglesworth has certainly got a great box kick, tremendous pass, he snipes around the ruck, he puts the guys into roles whereas Duncan plays a totally different game, a more physical game, sometimes he mixes it up with the forwards so we’ll have to counter Wigglesworth in other ways, it shouldn’t be only Duncan’s problem.
“If you go right through that Saracens team, there are so many threats.”