Saracens would have hoped for a quieter week than the one just gone but Maro Itoje, for one, is aiming to block out the outside noise against old foes Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final on Saturday in Coventry.
Salary cap scrutiny, the Billy Vunipola social media meltdown and a 23-21 defeat by Bristol were not exactly what the doctor ordered for the Londoners ahead of this weekend’s European clash.
After being booed at Bristol, it might read like a club hitting the buffers but Munster fans should not read too much into Saturday’s loss at Ashton Gate.
Saracens had Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Itoje, Vunipola, Alex Lozowski and Ben Spencer on the bench, and Owen Farrell and George Kruis did not feature at all. They have as good as nailed a home Premiership semi-final already and director of rugby Mark McCall knows where his priorities lie — hence his team selection. They also expect to have loose-head Mako Vunipola back for the Munster game after an ankle injury, but undoubtedly they could have done without all of the off-field distractions.
However, if there is one side which can push all the peripheral stuff to the back of their minds it is Saracens, but Itoje knows they are in for a big test from the Irish province.
Munster are familiar opponents for the English champions, they beat them 26-10 in Dublin on their way to the title in 2017, and Itoje is similarly familiar with some of the men in red from his time with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand two years ago. Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and CJ Stander were on that trip, with O’Mahony captaining the tourists in the first Test in Auckland, and Itoje knows what is coming. A big red wall.
“The characteristics of Munster haven’t changed for years,” the lock said. “They fight for everything, they are a top four team, they have got lots of talented players but we also have a very good team and we also have a very good record in knock-out rugby as well. So I don’t think we are going to be afraid of anything or be worried about anything but we know we are going to have to bring our A game.”
Itoje, still just 24 despite his standing in world rugby, joined the O’Mahony fan club on that epic trip to face the All Blacks when the world champions were held to a drawn series.
“I thought he was great, I got on really well with him,” Itoje added. “He is a very nice guy, a top professional, he works extremely hard, he is a very good person to be around and a lot of the English guys loved him. He was a good team man, put the team first on all occasions, so I have huge respect for him.
“The breakdown and line out are probably two of his strongest areas. He studies the game well, he reads it well so I am sure he is going to try and make an impact there.”
McCall was not keen to talk about Munster in the aftermath of the Bristol game, which the hosts won with Ian Madigan’s 81st-minute penalty but he has had the match on his mind since the quarter-final win over Glasgow.
Saracens only view play-off or knock-out games as what they call ‘selection’ matches, preferring to rotate the squad during the rest of the season.
“I made a lot of changes to the team with next week in mind,” was the best McCall would offer up. He will have a plan but if Saracens know what is coming it is a good bet Munster do too.