Ask any Munster supporter their thoughts on the Saracens personnel coming to Thomond Park this evening and they will take the matchday squad named by Mark McCall yesterday in a heartbeat. Ask the Munster coaching group the same question and they will not be taking anything for granted.
Munster, under pressure following a home draw in round two against Racing 92, have been handed a gilt-edged opportunity to get their Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign back on track by Saracens’ selection decisions.
In opting to leave out the backline firepower of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly and also give a weekend off to fellow England World Cup runners-up in the forwards, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis, and Billy Vunipola, a week after they set about reversing their club’s Premiership relegation-threatening points deduction, Munster’s hopes of getting a home victory tonight have increased considerably.
The reasons for those decisions are plain, with Saracens understandably focusing on fighting for top-flight survival in their home league after the heavy punishment received for Premiership salary cap breaches. They decided not to fight on two fronts, at least not this weekend, and with a defeat at Racing in round one already in the books, they risk a further threat to their European title defence by travelling to Limerick with less than a full complement, particularly against a Munster side close to full strength and energised by fresh faces in the coaching set-up.
Yet while the visitors are weakened, Munster head coach Johann van Graan will be telling his players their opponents are far from weak. There remains an experienced spine to this Saracens side, led by captain and midfield fulcrum Brad Barritt, making his 250th appearance for his club this evening alongside Alex Lozowski, playing his 100th. And while the forward pack is missing some big names, there remains the intelligence and abrasion of Maro Itoje, the back-row nous of Ben Earl and Jackson Wray, and the power and heft of Will Skelton.
It is still going to take a quality performance from Munster to get the victory their quarter-final qualification hopes depend on. Fortunately for van Graan he currently has a group of players gathering momentum and performing with a new verve, confidence buoyed following the additions of Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to the backroom staff.
The intellectual property brought to the table by the Australian senior coach and English forwards coach has not been slow to make an impression on their new charges. Though at times against Racing two weeks ago, Munster were hanging onto Parisian coattails until coming back to have a late shot at victory before settling for the draw, the new freedoms given to players to stray from the script and express themselves in different areas were also apparent. The strengths of old remain but have been augmented by a spirit of adventure that means whatever team Saracens sent to Ireland this weekend, they would be facing a much different model to the one-dimensional versions they faced in the 2017 and 2019 European semi-finals.
Even with the continuing absence through injury of playmaker Joey Carbery, Munster have in JJ Hanrahan, an in-form fly-half capable of carrying his side to victory this evening. In a match-up against an inexperienced opposite number, Mako and Billy’s younger brother Manu Vunipola, Hanrahan holds the keys to success and despite fluffing his most important line against Racing, by missing the short-range drop-goal that would have brought the win, the Kerryman promises to return all the stronger for that experience.
Head coach van Graan has certainly been impressed by the way Hanrahan responded to that much-scrutinised lapse at the end of what had been an otherwise excellent performance and also how he has embraced the responsibility of leading Munster from 10 in the absence of both Carbery and Tyler Bleyendaal.
“The great thing about JJ is that he took it straight away,” van Graan said of the drop-goal attempt. “He knew that he missed it and he was very disappointed. We as a squad said that we win together and lose together. He’s determined to do better when another kick like that comes his way. But the rest of his game was pretty good that evening.
“That’s what you want as a 10. I never have been a top-quality 10 but they seem to want the ball when the pressure is on. So I guess if he finds himself in a similar position this weekend, he’ll want to take it upon himself again ... that’s what special players are about.
“When Joey came last season, the most important thing for me was how the others reacted. And both JJ and Tyler reacted positively because they both wanted to be the starting 10. That’s been the attitude and Tyler and JJ started well this season.
“Unfortunately, Tyler got injured, Joey hasn’t come back yet but JJ has embraced it and he takes it on him to lead the team. In world rugby, your 10 needs to come through if you want to win big games and competitions. He’s embracing that responsibility.”
Whatever Saracens lack in terms of personnel, there remains the framework that has brought them so much success. Yet there is a feeling that Munster have finally cracked their code, that they know how to handle what their rivals bring and the means to negotiate their suffocating defence. It sounds like an opportunity to relish for Hanrahan & Co.