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McCall: Champions Cup semi-final will bring out the best in Saracens

Saracens boss Mark McCall believes that Saturday's European Champions Cup semi-final showdown against Munster will "bring out the best" in his players.

The holders contest a fifth successive European last-four clash this weekend, facing two-time tournament winners Munster at Dublin's Aviva Stadium.

For Saracens stars like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, it means an early return to the scene of England's Six Nations loss to Ireland, where a 13-9 defeat five weeks ago ended their Grand Slam hopes.

But McCall is relishing a guaranteed high-octane occasion as Saracens look to book a place in next month's Murrayfield final against Clermont Auvergne or Leinster, who meet in Lyon on Sunday.

"We have an experienced group who for the last eight seasons have been through a lot of on-field experiences - some good, some bad," rugby director McCall said.

"They are all in the bank and they are important things to call on. We are accustomed to these occasions.

"The fact some of our English players were at the Aviva a few weeks ago is a good thing. The players won't be surprised by what is waiting, albeit it will be a very special atmosphere.

"We've got a group who know they can rely on each other, and if it's 40,000 Munster men and us, then we will back each other.

"These occasions bring out the best in the group. The more they play them, the more they relish them.

"It is going to be difficult at times. There will be times in the match when we are under pressure and they've got all the momentum, and we have got to show our experience in those moments - we have got to be resilient."

Saracens start with all six of their squad selected on Wednesday for this summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand - Farrell, Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Kruis - but Munster scrum-half Conor Murray misses out through injury.

Lions selection Murray has not played since suffering a shoulder/neck problem when Ireland were beaten by Wales in Cardiff on March 10.

Duncan Williams continues in the number nine shirt, but Murray's fellow Lions CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony both start as Munster target a first final appearance since 2008.

McCall added: "Munster are an unbelievably well-organised side. The turnaround from last year to this year has been incredible.

"But not only are they hugely well organised, they work incredibly hard. They are superb defensively.

"They have the best defensive record in the Guinness PRO12 and the Champions Cup. They are hard to break down.

"They have only lost four out of 27 games this season, which is pretty good. They have resilience that means they stay in the fight and scrap for everything, and it is going to be like that on Saturday."

Munster made pool stage exits in each of the last two seasons - their 2014-15 European campaign included a 33-10 pool stage defeat against Saracens - and skipper O'Mahony said: "We always pride ourselves on how we do in Europe, and we let ourselves down over the past couple of years.

"But we have a different group now, and we are a different animal. We've learnt a lot of lessons, and we now go about our business in a different way."

Leinster, meanwhile, will arrive at Lyon's Stade de Gerland without their Ireland and Lions flanker Sean O'Brien.

O'Brien, who heads to New Zealand with the Lions next month, has been ruled out due to what Leinster say is tightness in his hamstring, and he will be assessed again ahead of next Friday's PRO12 game against Glasgow.

Rhys Ruddock comes into the team at blindside flanker, with Dan Leavy moving to openside, but Leinster's other 2017 Lions - centre Robbie Henshaw, fly-half Jonathan Sexton and props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong - all start.


From Belfast Telegraph