Munster won’t want for incentive in London this weekend. In Jean Kleyn’s permutations, beating Saracens at Allianz Park Saturday not only keeps Munster’s hopes alive of Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final qualification, but also offers the opportunity to extinguish the aspirations of the defending champions.
Their narrow defeat in the teeth of Storm Atiyah at Thomond Park last Saturday condemned Saracens to a second defeat in Pool 4, following their opening-round loss at frontrunning Racing 92. Mark McCall’s side sits in third on six points, five behind Munster and six adrift of the Parisians. Which makes this meeting in north London a pivotal contest for both parties.
“It would be a big win because Sarries effectively could be out of the running,” Kleyn said. “It’s a big onus on us this weekend to perform and to have that 80-minute performance.”
That said, Kleyn is taking nothing for granted about the size of the challenge against a Saracens side likely to recall the star names left at home for the trip to Thomond Park.
That the supposed second-string left Limerick with a losing bonus point from a 10-3 defeat is not lost on the South African-born second row.
“With the European Cup, what I have learned over the last few years, it is very much about accumulating points. They have played us away and they took theirs and now we are playing them away and they are expecting to recoup the points here.
“It is down to us to keep them out of it now. Realistically speaking they are only five points behind. If we slip up this weekend and we have a poor performance they can come right back in and we could end up third on the log, which is not something we plan on doing.
Position-wise, we’re sitting in a fairly good place now but we still have a few very big matches ahead of us to close out the pool stages.
The Saracens trip is the first of extremely tough back-to-back away assignments for Johann van Graan’s squad with pool-leading Racing 92 lying in wait for Munster at their indoor La Défense Arena in Paris on January 12. Getting match points from both games is the target but Kleyn recognises the need for an added strength from the visiting team, away from the comforts of Thomond Park.
“Emotionally, there’s probably a bit more work to do in terms of you don’t have that home crowd, you don’t have 25-26,000 Munster fans cheering you on when you go to that dark place running around on the pitch.
“So, there’s more there to do emotionally. Outside of that, it’s the same team and prep-work. There’s not much different apart from the pitch and with (Musgrave) Park we have a good comprehension what it’s like playing on a 4G pitch.”
Kleyn and his Munster team-mates will land in London in good spirits following a hard-fought victory over the English and European champions, the sort of physical contest he has grown to relish in his four seasons of jousting with Premiership clubs since a Champions Cup debut against Leicester Tigers this week three years ago.
“I do enjoy the games against the English sides, Saracens and Exeter, they are hard as nails and it’s good fun at the end of the day,” Kleyn, 26, said. “It is all in the spirit of the sport, and all that stuff, but it is a good challenge.
“You get to put in some hard hits, and sometimes some hard hits get put into you. It is all good but it is something I enjoy. I enjoyed this weekend’s game and hopefully I will enjoy Saturday’s game coming.
“They are a world-class side, they showed that when they won the Premiership and the European Cup earlier this year. So you can’t just put it down to size. Their players are skilful and well-drilled. They are good players.
“You can’t just put it down to size. I would say their size does have an influence because there are a few big fellas in there. But I am bigger than a lot of the players I play against and sometimes you don’t come out on the good end of every collision. It is all about just handling it effectively and within the team.
“Saracens, they have such a good squad system that no matter what team they put up it is going to be more or less a consistent performance in terms of quality and execution. We did our prep work (last week) and we thought we knew what to expect. I think we handled it quite well. That shows in the result. Hopefully this week we can replicate that result.”
Kleyn: Tide starting to turn for Munster
Kleyn’s shift in the Munster engine room may have been over when Jack O’Donoghue stole the Saracens ball to secure last Saturday’s 10-3 European pool win in Limerick but he was as satisfied with the work of the lineout unit as those on the pitch.
O’Donoghue’s steal was Munster’s third of the evening following two from captain Peter O’Mahony and condemned Saracens to a 69 per cent completion rate for the set-piece.
It was the defending champions’ 11th lineout loss from 39 throws in three Pool 4 games so far this season and lowered their tournament success rate to just 72 per cent, the lowest of the 20 participating clubs, though the return to action of England lock and lineout leader George Kruis this weekend seems inevitable.
Munster’s lineout in the Champions Cup this term is operating at 86 per cent, enough for only a 14th-place ranking, but with O’Mahony leading the tournament in steals, his total rising to four after the weekend. Billy Holland and O’Donoghue have one apiece.
Kleyn was delighted with the most recent steal, saying: “It shows what we are training and what we are doing, and what we are building towards in the last few years is starting to work. Being able to close off a match like that. We could have easily slipped up there again and had one mistake following another.”