Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Munster can upset the odds to get better of Saracens'

Before the teams have been named, the bookies have come down firmly on the side of Saracens for tomorrow’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final. Those pundits who aren’t guided by their own loyalties are generally veering towards the English side progressing from the Coventry clash.

The 2016 and 2017 European champions appear to be back to their best after a year that saw them dip below the standards they’d previously set and still win the Premiership. Their England contingent are buoyed by a strong Six Nations and they’re bolstered by a strong international contingent. They are a formidable outfit.

Munster, meanwhile, arrive in the English Midlands for their third successive semi-final having failed to perform in the previous two.

Yet there is a compelling case that this year can be different; that Johann van Graan’s side have improved to the point where they can produce a performance worthy of beating one of the heavy hitters and reaching a first final since 2008.

Squad strength and fitness

Two years ago, it was Saracens who ended their run and the gulf in class was clearly evident that day.

In the mists of time, however, it is easy to forget that Conor Murray missed that match with injury and CJ Stander was playing on one leg because of a heavily strapped ankle.

At the time, Munster were heavily reliant on their Ireland No 8’s carrying game and while he is still a key figure, they have more options now.

Duncan Williams started in Murray’s absence and Saracens targeted him unmercifully. After a tough run, Murray has found form and even if he struggles, van Graan has a quality back-up in Alby Mathewson.

The likely absence of Keith Earls is a blow Joey Carbery is obviously a big loss, but Tyler Bleyendaal is a class replacement who appears to have found form at the right time.

Munster’s improvements have been recognised at international level and their pack, in particular, is capable of living with the best of them. Their bench has been able to come in and make a mark.

Saracens are human

Teams can often build an aura around themselves and in 2017 Saracens, then champions of Europe, had that bulletproof feel.

After last season’s struggles they have got back to a good level and came out of their pool unscathed, but they have yet to face a genuine contender. Glasgow Warriors, Cardiff Blues and newcomers Lyon are hardly a stellar line-up of pool opponents and, having gone six from six, the English side welcomed the Scots back to their 4G pitch for a third victory. Glasgow could well win the PRO14, but they haven’t got the fire-power up front to live with Europe’s big hitters.

Munster took out Exeter, who are currently nine points clear of Sarries atop the Premiership and Gloucester, who are eight points behind them in third. Throw in French champs Castres and a tough Edinburgh side away from home and it’s clear the Irish province are battle-hardened.

Although they looked awesome in Dublin, their sizeable England contingent were shown to be very human indeed when Wales and Scotland dragged them into a fight. Even Owen Farrell, for all of his undoubted leadership abilities and decision-making skills, can be rattled.

Munster must ask them questions they have not been asked thus far.

The Ricoh is a level playing field

Sure, Saracens are more used to playing in Coventry because they face Wasps there at least once a season, but it isn’t a home venue for the Londoners, who face a two-hour trip up the road.

Not known for their fan-base, the ‘home’ team are likely to be out-numbered by the travelling Red Army.

Saracens won’t be bothered by the numbers game, but the fact that the game is being played on grass rather than their artificial turf will have an impact. All of Mark McCall’s side’s five defeats this season have come away from home, on grass.

Munster will perform

Doubts remain about van Graan’s attacking plan, but with an excellent pack, a strong set-piece, the tournament’s best defence and an accurate kick-chase game, Munster go to England with a cup rugby game-plan.

They have failed to fire in two previous semi-finals and the memory of those performances has haunted them for a year. Whatever about facing a strong opposition, they will be determined to fire shots and do themselves justice.

If they can execute their plan, get on top in the tight and get the in-form Keith Earls into the game, then they can take Saracens to a place no one in Europe has taken them this season.

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