January 2014 saw Anthony Foley’s Munster travel to north London for a make or break Champions Cup round five pool game.
Home and away defeats to Clermont Auvergne had put them on the back foot, despite a losing bonus point at Stade Marcel Michelin in round four.
Yet circumstances would only get worse at Allianz Park as Munster, missing a concussed Conor Murray, were unable to overcome the odds stacked heavily in Saracens’ favour. Losing CJ Stander to injury in the opening half hour didn’t help but Munster were as guilty of not taking their own chances as they were of struggling to contain the English powerhouse.
A 33-10 defeat consigned Munster to their first season without knockout European rugby for 17 years and a second campaign of failure to escape the pool phase immediately followed in 2015-16.
Which brings us to this coming Saturday, which will pit a born-again Munster side which has kept pushing the envelope in a turbulent season rocked by Foley’s sudden death on the eve of the European campaign, against a Saracens side now defending their Champions Cup crown after finally earning success in the continent’s premier club knockout competition.
Saturday’s semi-final at the Aviva Stadium is their fifth in a row in the Champions Cup and the Mark McCall-coached Londoners will go into the game as hot favourites. Yet Munster openside flanker O’Donnell believes his side has taken their medicine from that wounding defeat of three seasons ago.
“There’s lessons to be learned, yes. Against Saracens you have to be very clinical, you can’t let them play in your half. When they spend time in your half it means they score and we just have to be clinical,” O’Donnell, 29, said.
“We’re definitely playing better than we were in 2015 when we came up against them the last time. We’ve more confidence in ourselves, we’ve more confidence in our defence and in our set-piece and that’s what you need to be confident in when you’re heading in against Saracens.”
O’Donnell was impressed by Saracens late smash and grab against Northampton Saints last Sunday in Milton Keynes, which saw the English champions snatch victory from the unlikely position of 25-12 down in the second half.
“They were behind for a lot, nearly all of the game and they just had great confidence in themselves that they’ll keep playing and keep putting themselves in a position to win the game and that’s what they did,” the Munster flanker said. “It’s very similar to how we’ve been this season.
“They are a classy side. They bring a lot of physicality across all positions. They are a very very fit team. It’s going to take 80 minutes to break a team like them down.”
Saracens brushed Munster’s PRO12 rivals Glasgow aside 38-13 in the Champions Cup quarter-finals on April 2 and O’Donnell was full of admiration for their back row of blindside Michael Rhodes, openside Jackson Wray and England No. 8 Billy Vunipola.
“They have it all, if you go off their back-row from the quarter-final. They have a line-out operator as a six. They have a ground-hog, ball-carrying seven and an incredibly talented, ball-carrying No 8. They are a quality side, they are a very balanced back row. Two very good second rows and very very mobile props, and hookers. They are a mobile pack while also being a very, very physical pack.”
Yet Munster have some strengths themselves and have shown as much during a season which has defied expectation under director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, reaching the Champions Cup semis having been rated pool outsiders in a group containing Racing 92, Leicester Tigers and Glasgow Warriors.
“It’s how we are approaching games, and how we are dealing with games as a team,” O’Donnell said when asked about the most significant change in Munster’s make-up since last season.
“We are well prepared and we know that we know our game-plan down to a tee. We can trust our players as well. Everyone is prepared.
“Training this year is very, very intense. The two teams that are going up against each other know that if you perform in training you are putting your hand up for selection and you are being rewarded with that selection. Players feel that they have an opportunity to play.”
Munster players have been making the most of those opportunities this season and are now getting their reward with a semi-final appearance this weekend.
“It’s what we want as Munster, it’s where we aim to be,” O’Donnell said. “It’s what our fans want of us, it’s for us to be in a position to be competing in Europe and winning trophies.
“It’s brilliant given where we were this time last year. We were starting to perform again, starting to win games. And we just carried it on again for this season.
“It’s been a process, it seems like it’s flown, but when you look back and see the amount of games played, to be here now, putting ourselves in with a chance to win and go through to a final is incredible.”