Belfast Telegraph

Munster will need to find another level to keep Euro dream alive

Saracens v Munster, Heineken Champions Cup Pool Four, Allianz Park, Today, 3.00pm

Held up: Munster’s Rory Scannell with Saracens’ Mako Vunipola and Ben Spence
Held up: Munster’s Rory Scannell with Saracens’ Mako Vunipola and Ben Spence
Mark McCall

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The book of great Munster days in Europe is already bulging, yet they'll have to find some room in the annals if they can pull this one off.

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They have already broken rule one of the Champions Cup by failing to win one of their home matches, while they compounded their draw against Racing 92 by giving Saracens a sniff with a losing bonus point last weekend.

As promised, Mark McCall has brought back a slew of World Cup stars but this is not a full-strength push from the champions who have left Maro Itoje, Will Skelton and Brad Barritt out for the return fixture.

In, however, come Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis, Vincent Koch and the Vunipolas to make life uncomfortable for a Munster side who swap John Ryan in for Stephen Archer in the only change to their XV.

With the Parisians extending their lead by beating the Ospreys with a bonus point last night, Munster need to keep Saracens at bay.

They must win at least one of their next two away games to progress.

Neither venue is a place you'd choose to go when you need something, but if they can at least cancel out Saracens' return from Thomond Park they'll remain in control of their destiny albeit needing a victory beneath the disco lights at the La Defense Arena in Round Five.

Only Clermont have won at the Barnet venue since it opened its doors to rugby and when they did it was a low point in a rare and temporary slump.

Despite the bad news cycle they exist in, Saracens remain a force and their returning England stars won't want to give up their one chance at a trophy this season easily.

Munster have faced their fury before and, while they have won two of their last five meetings, both came at Thomond Park.

Away from the Limerick citadel, the games have not even been close.

With an aggressive, accurate defence, a strong set-piece, good rucking game and a varied and clinical attack, the Londoners are the complete package.

For all that there have been improvements this season, Munster are still some way off.

They have looked good at times, but the men in red are struggling to sustain their attacking impetus for 80 minutes and their accuracy let them down even before the rain last week.

They point to those errors now and reckon it shows room to improve.

Rory Scannell said: "They bring incredible line-speed off set-piece and they have quality individuals who are very good and strong defensively.

"You might get one or two opportunities but when they come you have to do your best to take them.

"They're a difficult side to break down. We looked at a few opportunities at the weekend that we might have missed and hopefully they might come off.

"I think we have been quite clinical at times but it's probably just about identifying a few opportunities we might miss.

"Hindsight is great when you look back at a video but it's just that kind of heads-up rugby and backing each other to take opportunities that we see."

Whether they'll get the chance remains to be seen given the forecast for rain in north London today.

That could make it a trench battle on an artificial surface and Saracens may regret picking the inexperienced Joel Kpoku in the second-row.

Equally, Munster will test full-back Max Malins, who makes his first European start, and no doubt Conor Murray, JJ Hanrahan and Scannell will seek to exploit his lack of experience and see how good his positioning is.

Saracens have a lot of stars, but there are gaps in the armoury. Still, there are no bad players in their squad and Munster will need to deliver one of their great performances, taking every chance that comes their way, to be in the mix.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan said: "It's a massive challenge ahead.

"We are playing against the very best team in Europe currently. They've got so much quality within their squad and what they do.

"I think both teams couldn't really show everything they had on the weekend, because you only had 40 minutes to do what you wanted with ball in hand, just because of the conditions in the second half.

"A lot of times you can't say, 'It doesn't get bigger than this', but in terms of European rugby, going to London on Saturday afternoon against Saracens, they're currently the best, so we're looking forward to seeing where we are."

SARACENS: M Malins; S Maitland, A Lozowski, N Tompkins, E Daly; O Farrell (capt), R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch; J Kpoku, G Kruis; N Isiekwe, B Earl, B Vunipola. Reps: T Woolstencroft, R Barrington, J Ibuanokpe, C Clark, J Wray, B Spencer, M Vunipola, D Taylor.

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; T Beirne, P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander. Reps: K O'Byrne, L O'Connor, S Archer, F Wycherley, J O'Donoghue, N McCarthy, D Goggin, T O'Donnell.

Referee: P Gauzere (France)

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