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McCall focused on Munster clash

Mark McCall insists that the possibility of pool-stage elimination is not in Saracens' thought process as they prepare for a crunch European Champions Cup clash against Munster.

The Irish heavyweights, European champions in 2006 and 2008, will nudge Saracens towards the exit door if they win Saturday's Pool One encounter at Allianz Park.

Munster, though, are also scrapping for European survival, knowing they will effectively crash out if Saracens win and group leaders Clermont Auvergne beat already-eliminated Sale Sharks this weekend.

Victories over Munster and then away to Clermont in their final game on Sunday week should take Saracens through, while three best runner-up spots are also available across the five groups.

But Saracens will realistically give themselves a mountain to climb if they do not see off opponents beaten twice by Clermont last month.

"It is a big game - the first knockout game of the year, really," Saracens rugby director McCall said.

"It's the same for both teams, and we know that."

Asked about the possibility of making an early exit, McCall added: "Of course it would be disappointing, but you don't think like that. You just crack on with the next thing.

"This time last year, Northampton were knocked out of the (European) competition and were second or third in the Aviva Premiership, but then went on to beat us in the Premiership final.

"You deal with the blows along the way, but we are not thinking like that, we're thinking about beating Munster this weekend and then going to Clermont to try and win the group. That is the objective.

"Munster have this uncanny ability to raise their game when required to.

"But we are in that position as well in that we have phenomenal games in us when we've needed them. We've proved that over the last 18 months. We know this is the biggest game of the season so far."

Munster beat Saracens 14-3 when the sides met at Thomond Park in Limerick three months ago, but lock and Ireland captain Paul O'Connell knows the stakes are raised this weekend.

"To win this game is going to be really difficult," he said. "You are afraid of the consequences of losing, and you know what opportunities winning can bring.

"They (Saracens) are a really clever team, very hard to analyse, very unpredictable, and they prey on a lot of your errors.

"They force teams into errors, so it's going to be a very tough game for us."

Saracens skipper Alistair Hargreaves returns from injury and leads his side, with fit-again England centre Brad Barritt also back in action, but Munster will be without Ireland international scrum-half Conor Murray, who is sidelined by a neck problem.

The Pool Two quarter-final race currently sees three teams - Harlequins, Leinster and Wasps - separated by just one point ahead of Quins hosting Wasps on Saturday, when Leinster entertain Castres.

Wasps are currently third in the group, and rugby director Dai Young said: "We are just focusing on winning this game so we can take the final pool game (against Leinster) back to the Ricoh Arena next Saturday with a realistic possibility of going through.

"We will leave it to others to debate permutations. In my mind, we need to win both games to reach the knockout stages.

"You don't need to be a mathematician to work out that if we win both, we're through. It's not going to be easy, but that is how we are looking at it."

Sunday's Champions Cup action, meanwhile, sees Bath and Northampton facing key away-day appointments with Toulouse and the Ospreys, respectively.

Bath will be without former rugby league star Sam Burgess, who has a knock but is expected to be fit for next week's clash against Glasgow, and they must beat the French giants to retain any hope of winning Pool Four.

Premiership champions Northampton, meanwhile, know that a win in Swansea would keep them neck and neck with Pool Five rivals Racing Metro ahead of next weekend's encounter between the clubs at Franklin's Gardens.

England hooker Dylan Hartley returns from a three-week suspension to skipper the Saints, but lock Courtney Lawes is absent because of an ankle injury.


From Belfast Telegraph