Ahead of Friday night’s European Champions Cup game between Munster and Saracens, Conor Heffernan looks at five of the key talking points going into the match.
Last weekend Anthony Foley’s men had to wait until the 81st minute for drop goal from Ian Keatley to secure a much needed win away at Sale. This Friday night sees Axel’s men face off against a highly fancied Saracens side hoping to continue their run of form in Europe.
1) – Have Munster learned?
The Reds left it very late against Sale and will be hoping not to repeat last weekend’s performance. Munster’s first half showing was far below what we expect from a team of their ability.
Munster made a litany of defensive errors and struggled to keep the ball once in possession, and whilst the second half performance showed a marked improvement, there’s still more from this side. Will Munster be able to put their first half performance behind them? Time will tell.
2) – Will tiredness be the downfall of Axel’s men?
Against Sale, Foley only used 18 players during the entire 80 minutes for fear of disrupting his team’s momentum. With only a six day turnaround between the Sale match and tomorrow’s game against Saracens, how will the Munster players cope?
Tiredness will surely be an issue. Will Foley make drastic changes to tomorrow’s starting XV or choose the same team in the hopes of maintaining some form of consistency?
3) – Zebo vs Ashton. Who will win?
Last weekend, controversial England winger Chris Ashton picked up a brace against Clermont. He may be the man rugby fans love to hate, but there’s no denying the winger is devastating with the ball in hand. He represents one of Munster’s main threats in tomorrow’s European clash.
However, Munster aren’t without their own fire-power in the form of Simon Zebo. Zebo has scored four times already this year in the Guinness Pro12 and will be eager to add to his tally. Friday’s game may be won and lost depending on which wide man can be neutralised.
4) – Packed offence
Under Foley, Munster have returned to basics, relying on the strength of their formidable pack. Against weaker sides it’s been impressive with the Reds effectively bullying teams into submission. Saracens are no pushovers however.
Defensive coach Paul Gustard has instilled a much-needed meanness into his so-called ‘wolf pack’. Kruis, Hargreaves and co. will make sure that the Munster pack don’t have an easy time of it tomorrow night. How will Munster cope against a pack that punches back?
5) – What effect will the home crowd have?
Last season, Munster’s Pro12 matches were characterised by poor attendances. The inexplicable decision to hold the majority of games on a Friday night prevented many fans from travelling to Thomond.
Prior to the Sale game it seemed that this trend would continue, but once Keatly secured the points for Axel’s side last weekend, Reds fans flocked to buy tickets.
Tomorrow night will see a packed Thomond Park. What effect will this have on the home side? European nights at Thomond are special occasions and there’s no denying the atmosphere will be electric. Foley will be hoping it spurs his team on to victory.
Can Munster do it tomorrow night?
21,000 Munster fans think so. Hopefully for the fan’s sake, they don’t leave it to the last kick of the game again.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena