PREVIEW: Munster v Saracens
CHAMPIONS CUP SEMIFINAL: British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will be an especially interested observer when title-holders Saracens take on Munster in a European Champions Cup semifinal in Dublin on Saturday.
Saracens had six players, the largest representation of any club, in the Lions squad unveiled by Gatland for the upcoming tour of New Zealand earlier this week.
That England sextet of Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are all set to play against Munster.
But if the Irish province's Lions trio of scrumhalf Conor Murray and loose forwards Christiaan Stander and Peter O'Mahony are also on show, nearly a quarter of Gatland's 41-man squad could feature in the eagerly anticipated clash.
"What a game that is going to be," said Andy Farrell, one of Gatland's assistant coaches with the Lions.
"Two sides that are very confident in the way they are playing, two sides that seem to be comfortable in what they are about as men and as a team."
Munster, twice former European champions, saw off four-time continental kings Toulouse 41-16 in the quarterfinals, with Saracens equally overwhelming in defeating Glasgow 38-13.
But a far closer contest is expected at Lansdowne Road this weekend.
Former dual-code international Andy Farrell, the father of Saracens and England goalkicker Owen and himself a former Saracens player, is well-placed to assess Munster too in his 'day job' of Ireland defence coach.
Munster, always assured of passionate support from their loyal fans, have been riding an even greater wave of emotion this season following the shock death of popular coach Anthony Foley on the eve of a Champions Cup pool match in Paris in October.
But recent campaigns have seen London club Saracens - also the reigning English champions - buck the trend in European club rugby by winning high-stakes games away from home.
"I think Saracens have been masters over the last period of time of playing the game in front of them, no matter where they are playing," said Andy Farrell.
"But I am sure they are aware of the army of red that is going to come to the Aviva [Lansdowne Road], and a Munster side that is bang on form at this moment in time. I wouldn't call it, I definitely wouldn't."
Ireland No.9 Murray, currently sidelined with a nerve injury affecting his shoulder and neck, could be missing for Munster, however.
Gatland, who has told Murray he must play before the end of the season to make sure of his Lions place, indicated Wednesday that the Ireland No.9 had been ruled out of the semifinal.
But Saracens coach Mark McCall, himself a former Ireland international, said: "They kick off nine a lot, we fully expect Conor Murray to be playing on Saturday.
"His kicking game is superb, everyone knows that, and their kick-chase has gone to another level."
He added: "I think the players do know what's coming and what they are walking into and I think they are looking forward to it to be honest.
"We have got to show our experience...We have got to understand we are not playing against super-humans just because the crowd are noisy."
Saracens' Lions contingent are well aware of just how lively the crowd at Lansdowne Road can be after most of them were involved in the England side that saw their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams dashed there in a 9-13 defeat by Ireland last month.
But Munster and Ireland wing Simon Zebo, speaking before he was overlooked by the Lions, was under no illusions that crowd fervour alone would see Saracens toppled.
"Saracens are the defending champions and are an unbelievable side," said Zebo.
"We will show them respect but, having said that, we will give it our best shot."
With prop Mako Vunipola fit after a knee injury, Saracens' only fitness concern is centre Duncan Taylor's bruised chest bone.
Prediction: This will be Munster's 12th European Cup semifinal – a record for the competition - while Saracens have reached the semifinals 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 quarterfinals, on 157 matches. This will be the eighth meeting between the clubs; Munster have won five of the previous seven clashes (lost two), although those two defeats against Saracens have come in their last three meetings. These sides have met once before in the semifinal with Munster progressing to the final in 2008 after an 18-16 victory at the Ricoh Arena before going on to lift the trophy in Cardiff. Saracens are unbeaten in their last 16 Champions Cup games (won 15, drew one), and only Leinster have gone on a longer unbeaten streak in the competition (Won 16, Drew one, 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 semifinal. 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 (five) and Saracens (eight) have conceded fewer tries than any other side this season, with both teams yet to concede a first-half try. Christiaan 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. It will be tight, but Munster will have the edge at home in from of their passionate supporter. Munster to win by 10 points or less.
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 (captain), 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 (captain), 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 (14.15 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzere (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
AFP & @ChampionsCup