Preview: Saracens v Munster

Date published: January 16 2015

Munster must beat Saracens at Allianz Park on Saturday if they hope to keep their European Champions Cup quarter-final hopes alive.

After their win earlier in the pool stages, Munster have now got the better of Saracens on five of the six occasions that they have met.

But back-to-back defeats against Pool leaders Clermont have left the two-time champions from Ireland lying in third place, three points behind Sarries and four off the top.

Saracens have enjoyed strong home form this season with only one defeat in nine games at Allianz Park and a further ‘home’ win over Wasps at Twickenham Stadium.

Munster skipper Paul O’Connell admits his side’s chances are “probably slim” but in true Munster fashion, is ready to fight to the bitter end.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve got to do something that we haven’t done before,” said O’Connell.

“I think in Anthony Foley’s era we were in a similar position when we lost to Perpignan over there, and we managed to pull through,” said O’Connell.

“But it’s going to take a little bit of luck to go away to Saracens. To win this game is going to be really difficult – you’re afraid of the consequences of losing and you know what opportunities winning can bring.

“I know how tough it is going over there. They’re 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. It would be fantastic to get a result, get a win over there and give ourselves a chance of qualifying, but it’s going to be very difficult.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall will take O’Connell’s words with a pinch of salt, knowing full well from bitter personal experience just how stubborn a side Munster are and how capable they are of getting out of the most impossible situations, especially in Europe.

Saracens still have an away trip to come to Clermont next week, but four or five points against Munster could put last season’s runners-up in contention for at least a runners-up ticket into the last eight.

Sarries have built their success around a string defence, with Jamie George the tournament’s top tackler this season missing just two of his 60 attempted tackles.

Saracens, along with Harlequins, have allowed the fewest clean breaks in the tournament, conceding just 14 in the tournament so far.

In teams news, Saracens flanker Kelly Brown will make his 100th appearance for the club and will line-up alongside Jacques Burger and Billy Vunipola in the back-row.

Alistair Hargreaves will captain the side from lock forward, with Jim Hamilton partnering him in the second-row.

Up front, Mako Vunipola starts at loosehead prop, with Jamie George at hooker and Petrus Du Plessis named at tighthead prop.

At half-back, Owen Farrell starts at outside half to partner Richard Wigglesworth. In the midfield, Brad Barritt returns to the side at inside centre and lines up alongside at Marcelo Bosch.

David Strettle starts on the left wing, with Chris Ashton wearing the fourteen jersey while Alex Goode is named at full-back.

Meanwhile, Munster head coach Anthony Foley has made eight changes to the side that started against Zebre last weekend.

After meeting with the specialist for a neck injury sustained against Zebre, Conor Murray was ruled out of selection for this weekend’s encounter and the scrum-half will be reviewed further after the weekend.

With Murray not available Duncan Williams comes in to make his first European start while Dave O’Callaghan and Keith Earls are named in a European matchday squad for the first time this season.

Further changes to the backline see Denis Hurley return to partner Pat Howard in midfield and Andrew Conway joining Simon Zebo and Felix Jones in the back three.

A clean sweep of changes are made in the front-row with James Cronin and BJ Botha packing down on either side of Duncan Casey at loosehead and tighthead respectively.

In the second-row Paul O’Connell returns to partner Dave Foley, while in the back-row Peter O’Mahony reverts back to blindside with Tommy O’Donnell coming in at openside and CJ Stander continuing at number eight.

Should they make an appearance from the bench this weekend, Earls will win his 100th cap for the province, while Ronan O’Mahony will make his European debut.

Form: Munster have won five of the six meetings between the two sides including the 14-3 win over Sarries at Thomond Park in round two. That was the largest win in games between the two sides. If they win Munster will become only the second team to win 100 games in Europe, matching Toulouse who achieved the feat earlier in this year’s tournament.

The teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Alistair Hargreaves (c), 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 James Johnston, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Ernst Joubert, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles.

Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Pat Howard, 12 Denis Hurley, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Duncan Casey, 1 James Cronin.
Replacements: 16 Eusebio Guinazu, 17 John Ryan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Ronan O’Mahony, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Keith Earls.

Date: Saturday, 17 January
Venue: Allianz Park, Barnet
Kick-off: 13:00 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Christophe Berdos (France); Tual Trainini (France)