Preview: Munster v Saracens

Date published: April 21 2017

Munster boss Rassie Erasmus has named a strong matchday 23 for Saturday's  Champions Cup semi-final with Saracens at the Aviva Stadium.

CJ Stander has overcome the ankle injury sustained against Toulouse in the quarter-final stage to be named in the starting XV.

Stander is one of five changes to the side that defeated Ulster in the PRO12 last weekend in Thomond Park. 

The Ireland international, most recently named in his first Lions squad, is the only change to the pack as he joins Lions’ colleague Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell in the back row.

An unchanged front five sees Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan scrum down in the front row while the squad’s most capped duo of Donnacha Ryan and Billy Holland continue their second row partnership.

With late changes to the side last weekend the half back pairing of Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal return to start for Saturday’s encounter.

Centre Jaco Taute also makes a return as he resumes his European midfield partnership with Rory Scannell who has been deemed fit to play after a knock to his ankle last weekend.

The final change comes by way of winger Andrew Conway who joins Keith Earls and Simon Zebo in the back three.

Named in the replacements is Jean Deysel who will make his Champions Cup debut if sprung from the bench.

Meanwhile, all six Saracens players that were named in the British and Irish squad to tour New Zealand in June have been included in their starting XV for this important fixture.

Loosehead prop Mako Vunipola is joined by fellow Lions pick Jamie George in the Saracens front row – they are joined by Springbok international tighthead Vincent Koch, whilst Maro Itoje and George Kruis are named at lock-forward. 

Billy Vunipola starts at number eight alongside the in-form back-row duo of Michael Rhodes (blindside flanker) and Jackson Wray (openside flanker).

In the halves, scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth partners Owen Farrell. 

At centre, Brad Barritt captains the side to partner Marcelo Bosch, with the Argentine midfielder making his 50th appearance in the Champions Cup. In the back-three, Sean Maitland (left-wing), Chris Ashton (right-wing) and Alex Goode all start.

On the bench, experienced front-row duo Schalk Brits and Petrus Du Plessis are joined by USA international Titi Lamositele, whilst Jim Hamilton takes his place amongst the replacements after recovering from a back injury. 

After his comeback game on Easter Sunday, Schalk Burger takes the other forwards replacements spot. Ben Spencer is the replacement scrum-half, with England summer tourist to Argentina Alex Lozowski plus the returning Chris Wyles (another set for his 50th Champions Cup appearance) also named in the matchday 23.

Form: This will be Munster's 12th European Cup semi-final – a record for the competition – while Saracens have reached the semi-finals for a sixth time and for the fifth season in a row. Munster will be playing their 158th tournament game – the most of any club. The two-time champions are currently level with Toulouse, who they beat in the quarter-finals, on 157 matches. 

This will be the 8th meeting between the clubs; Munster have won five of the previous seven clashes (L2), although those two defeats against Saracens have come in their last three meetings. The sides have met once before in the semi-final with Munster progressing to the final in 2008 after an 18-16 victory at the Ricoh Arena before going on to lift trophy in Cardiff. 

Saracens are unbeaten in their last 16 Champions Cup games (W15, D1), and only Leinster have gone on a longer unbeaten streak in the competition (W16, D1, 2010-2012).  Munster have won their last four Champions Cup games and have not gone on a longer run since winning six-in-a-row in 2013/14 when they last reached the semi-final. 

Chris Ashton needs just one try to become the outright top try scorer in European Cup history. He is currently level with Vincent Clerc on 36 tries. 

Munster (5) and Saracens (8) have conceded fewer tries than any other side this season, with both teams yet to concede a first-half try. 
CJ Stander has made 114 carries this season, and no other player has made 100 carries so far in the competition.  Owen Farrell (97) and Tyler Bleyendaal (94) are the top point scorers in the Champions Cup this season, and no other player has scored more than 80 points to date. Farrell was last season's top scorer with 127 points.

The teams:

Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne 
Replacements:  16 Rhys Marshall, 17 James Cronin, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave O’Callaghan, 20 Jean Deysel,21  Ian Keatley, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Darren Sweetnam

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola 
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus Du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Chris Wyles

Date: Saturday, April 22
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15:15 local (14:15 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)

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