Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# belief
Munster underdogs again but feel they're 'a different animal' for Saracens clash
The southern province feel they have moved forward over the past two seasons.

NEITHER HEAD COACH was in the mood to discuss Billy Vunipola yesterday.

“I’d rather just talk about the rugby,” said Saracens’ Mark McCall, who wouldn’t delve into the issue of his number eight beyond confirming that he is available for selection this weekend – after he had been formally warned about his conduct.

Johann van Graan Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Munster had some unexpected visitors to training yesterday. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Munster’s Johann van Graan was of a similar mind, stating that he’s “focused on Saturday” when asked about Vunipola, and there is certainly plenty of cause for both coaches to concentrate on on-pitch matters ahead of this Heineken Champions Cup semi-final in Coventry.

Vunipola will likely be a key part of those matters – and may get booed again, as he was last weekend in Bristol – but Munster feel they have plenty of their own weapons to fire at Saracens on Saturday.

The feeling within Van Graan’s group is that they are a far more advanced team than the one that was dismantled be Saracens in their semi-final in Dublin two seasons ago when Rassie Erasmus was still in charge.

Van Graan was at the wheel for Munster’s most recent semi-final defeat – a loss to Racing 92 last season – but the sense around their high performance centre in the University of Limerick yesterday was of a province ready to finally take a major step and return to a European final for the first time since they won the competition back in 2008.

“We put in a lot of work over the past 12 months and I think that we are a different animal to what we were, further down the track,” says Munster captain Peter O’Mahony.

“Don’t get me wrong – we are under no illusions as to how tough it is going to be. But we are definitely a better side than we were last year, that gives us great confidence.”

Coming through “big battles” against Exeter – drawing away and winning at home – has fed into the Munster belief, while O’Mahony feels Munster’s “game plan has improved.”

Peter O'Mahony Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Munster captain Peter O'Mahony at training in UL. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The facts are that Saracens are eight-point favourites and have a much better recent pedigree than Munster in Europe, but still van Graan’s men will travel with confidence – and more strong support.

“We have a few more strings to our bow with regards to our attack,” says O’Mahony. “Our defence is getting there certainly. We have conceded the least amount of tries of anyone in this competition so far.

“We are working hard but can get better. We have certainly grabbed a bit of confidence from the last couple of months. Hopefully, that will stand to us at the weekend.”

Add in signings like Chris Farrell, Tadhg Beirne and Alby Mathewson and it’s even clearer when Munster feel they’re a much-improved team to two years ago. Joey Carbery is set to miss out, of course, but then the fit-again and refreshed Tyler Bleyendaal is almost like a new signing.

For their part, Saracens will probably feel much the same as Munster.

“You would like to think that two years on, there’s improvements in everybody individually and you evolve as a squad,” says McCall in typically understated fashion.

“Whether that is the case or not, it is for other people to judge really. I suppose it is all about whether we can perform on the big occasion.” 

Mark McCall James Crombie / INPHO McCall has an impressive squad to pick from. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Saracens are confident that captain Brad Barritt will be fit after a recent ankle injury, while McCall can also call on the quality of Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, George Kruis, Owen Farrell, Alex Goode and a host of other high-class players.

But McCall is, as ever, more of the mind to praise the opposition.

“Just how tough Munster are to break down, how tough they are to play against,” says the former Ireland international. “It’s difficult to get quick ball against them.

“Their defence is the area that I see as the thing that they have most improved. It’s difficult to win set-piece ball against them and I think they have added some strings to their bow in attack.”

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