Former Munster and British and Irish Lions star Rob Henderson gives his views on Munster’s match-up against Saracens at Thomond Park tonight.
Munster’s last minute victory over Sale last weekend wasn’t the prettiest of games for fans of the Red Army but it was a win. In a group containing last year’s semi-finalists Clermont and Saracens, all manner of wins are welcome.
I don’t think anyone expected Sale to play as well as they did over 80 minutes against Munster. Steve Diamond’s men came out all guns blazing and initially Munster failed to cope in what was a very nervy first half performance. To be fair to Anthony Foley’s men they dug deep as the game progressed and in true Munster fashion kept fighting until the final whistle. They may have left it late, but Axel’s men did enough.
Sale ran Munster close last weekend, there’s no denying that, but talk in the newspapers this week that the Reds will be struggling to recover from the game needs a bit of perspective. Six days is plenty of time in Rugby and these men are used to the rigours of cup Rugby.
There’s no reason to expect they’ll be sluggish tomorrow night in Thomond. News coming out of the Munster camp that Axel has made two changes in the front row with Cronin and Botha being brought in, is more to do with finding a way to compete with Sarries pack rather than tired legs.
Competing on several fronts last season ultimately saw Saracens come up short both at home and in Europe. Sarries seem to have learned from the experience and Mark McCall’s men seem a lot wiser to the demands of cup rugby this time around.
Saracens impressed me with their victory over Clermont last weekend and a lot of that was down to their pack. The English side have big lumps in key positions and aren’t afraid of using them.
For a team as used to controlling a game through the forwards as Munster, Saracens present a tough challenge. Previous encounters between these two sides have been won and lost in the pack. I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue tomorrow. Saracens are devastating with the ball in hand, but it’s their pack that does the grunt work. Stop the pack, and you’re halfway to winning the match. Whoever fronts up tomorrow night in the forwards will control the game.
In the backline much of the focus will come down to Zebo and Ashton. Both men are characters of the game and it’s unsurprising they’ve been in the spotlight in the pre-match build up. Zebo has been impressive in this year’s Pro12 and Ashton’s brace against Clermont reminded us all of what he’s capable of.
Sarries spread the ball well against Clermont and Zebo will have to be at his best defensively if Munster are to neutralise the threat of Ashton. No doubt the newspapers will be hoping for sparks when these two men meet.
Confidence will be high in the Munster camp going into tomorrow night’s encounter. Axel’s top priority for this game will be a win. I said it last week and I’ll say it again, if Munster are to progress from their group, they need to win their home matches. Should Foley’s men find a way to prevent Sarries from picking up a bonus point, then all the better. The perfect result would be a Munster victory with a bonus point.
I’d like to say Munster to winning by more than seven, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Sarries will nick a bonus point tomorrow night. The past two encounters between these sides have been incredibly tight, so it’s hard to see either side running away with the match.
Regardless, I’ll be expecting a second win in Europe for Munster.
Rob Henderson, Pundit Arena.