It is not just the levels of professionalism in the Saracens squad coming to Thomond Park that impress Peter O’Mahony but the quality of the individuals that give the Munster skipper pause for thought as he assesses his side’s upcoming European challenge.
Whatever about the defending champions’ organisational strife at present following their 35-point deduction and £5.36m (€6.3m) fine by the English Premiership for breaches of the league’s salary cap, the size of the task facing Munster on Saturday in this Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 clash is far from diminished, according to O’Mahony.
The Ireland flanker’s experience as a squad-mate of many of the Saracens contingent on the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand was an overwhelmingly positive one and those players have only enhanced their reputations in the seasons that have followed as the north London side, coached by Mark McCall, have continued to dominate at home and in Europe.
Domestically, the docking of 35 points left them on minus 22 points, 26 adrift of second-from-bottom Leicester Tigers and facing a fight for Premiership survival. With the return of a core of their 17 players who represented six different countries at the World Cup, nine of whom played in the final, the deficit was cut to 22 with a win at Bath last Friday and the firepower available to McCall this Saturday, should he decide to call on it, underlines the scale of that challenge.
O’Mahony does not think trouble at home will distract Saracens on the road this weekend.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play with some of their players and I know how focused they are on the game,” O’Mahony said. “I don’t know how much of an effect it would have on them as actual players.
“I think they’ll all know they need to play well for their team, that would be their main focus and getting as many points in whatever competition. I don’t know, is the honest answer. They’re incredibly professional and the standard setters of this competition. They’re going to be as professional and, as they always turn out, we’re expecting an immaculate performance at the weekend.”
O’Mahony trained and played alongside a number of the Saracens contingent in New Zealand two years ago, the likes of Owen Farrell and pack-mates including Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy. He has seen first-hand how their professionalism is matched by their personalities.
“Incredible leaders, lineout operators, standard drivers, same with the backs. Obviously guys like Owen are world trendsetters with regards to rugby. I was very lucky to work with guys like that and I learned a huge amount from working with guys like that.
It gives you an insight but also gives you a true realisation of how good these guys are.
This will not be the first reunion between O’Mahony and Saracens. Last April’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to the champions in waiting at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena was a painful experience. Yet the Munster captain is hoping his side have moved on from that day, although he suggested it will take a “complete” and “extraordinary” effort.
What is different this time around? “It’s hard to say ‘if we are 100% in this area we’ll win’. You need a very complete performance against these guys to compete in the first place and probably an extraordinary performance to beat then so that’s we’re going to try to prepare for this week.
“It’s hard to put into words, obviously we have our fans (at Thomond Park) and we love playing there, it’s just being at home. Everyone loves to play at home and then obviously it’s a very special place but it doesn’t give you any extra points or a head start. It doesn’t mean that anyone goes easier probably the opposite way around.
Ultimately it’s up to us to play well and utilise the atmosphere and utilise the fans but at the end of the day it’s down to the 15 on the pitch to play as well as they can.
Having won at Ospreys in the opening round of the pool campaign three weeks ago, Munster are under pressure again following a 21-all home draw with Racing 92 in Limerick a fortnight ago.
O’Mahony accepted that with away trips to London and Paris still to come in rounds four and five, not winning at home again this weekend would make progression to the knockout stages extremely difficult.
“It certainly is. We’ve been here before, as soon as you drop points it’s backs against the wall stuff a little bit. That’s how important your home games are and, again, it’s cup rugby from early in the season.
“They’re games you need to be picking up points in for both sides.
“It has to bring out the best in teams because you have a huge amount of fear. You have fear of losing in Thomond Park, for one, and the bigger scheme of things is obviously Europe. We love playing in this competition and we love competing in it so it’s a huge drive for us to be in it but it’s a huge factor to be out of it. So that’s a huge drive.”