SARACENS v MUNSTER – Saturday, 3.0pm (Ricoh Arena)
This is going to be brilliant. Both teams play a very similar style that relies on solid defence and smart kicking. They also both have colourful Champions Cup histories and current big-game players to savour, but neither team has probably been at their best in recent weeks. That all sets it up nicely for a nervous thriller that will be close.
Saracens are coming in under a cloud, but it will be the making of them. They don’t wash anything under the carpet in the dressing room and they will have been very transparent with each other, talking about all the things that have been going on around them.
The latest big talking point has been the reprimanding of Billy Vunipola for using social media to voice his support for Israel Folau. Mark McCall’s players will be supportive of Billy, whether or not they believe his excuses.
Billy has been a little poor in the way he has gone making his point, but you have got to remember he is still a very young man. His brother Mako is a lot older and I’m sure they will have had some stern words. The club have also come out and got through the formalities of warning him and rightly so, and he has been given a formal warning by the RFU.
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It will be natural at Saracens to talk about the controversy and having been in that environment and won trophies with them, in adverse times that sort of chat surrounding them actually brings the guys together. It really does. The Billy situation will just reaffirm the fact that the guys need to stick together and when the pressure is on that they can come through it.
The Billy stuff, of course, is unwanted press. But they will have spoken about it as a club and will use it to galvanise themselves by putting their arms around Saracens best player.
Billy Vunipola explains his recent social media activity.
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) April 15, 2019
People will have heard the booing of Vunipola at Bristol last Saturday. I’m sure other people will now naturally boo him. Whether it is to jump on the bandwagon to put him off or whether they disagree with the way that he went about having an opinion on Folau, it is going to bring the Saracens guys together.
Owen Farrell is also coming back into the team with a massive point to prove. He played against Newcastle in the league but his last really big game was for England when he got hauled off as captain against Scotland. Then there is the salary cap fuss and it’s well documented that the club is under investigation.
2016/2017 season in a white-hot atmosphere ? it was the English Champions that prevailed ?
Can Munster do it this year??
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 8, 2019
Saracens are going to be desperate to deliver, they are going to want to change the talk about Saracens and make it all about the rugby.
Munster scrapped through their quarter-final at Edinburgh and while they can pull off these one-off big moments with the quality personnel they have, going into the semi-final without Joey Carbery would be a big loss.
Two different styles, both equally effective ??
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 16, 2019
He is a world-class out-half who has really stepped up to the mark and his absence will place heavy expectation on Conor Murray to step up at scrum-half. His form hasn’t been great and he limped back from a Six Nations with Ireland into a team that were lucky in the end to beat Edinburgh.
I was there pitch-side for it, doing some live television punditry, and Edinburgh looked comfortable for large parts until Munster showed their class in the key moments that really mattered.
Munster captain @PeterOM6 is set to make his 50th Champions Cup appearance in Saturday's semi-final against English champions Saracens!
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 17, 2019
Watch out for Peter O’Mahony. I’m a massive fan. We had a number of battles in my time as a player and I’ve got massive admiration of him. When the chips are down he’s a player that fronts up physically and emotionally, and he also has that leadership quality. He’s not a player Saracens need to be wary of in terms of his carrying ability, but over the ball and with his kind of emotion he will be one for Saracens to stop.
So, too, Tadhg Beirne. He didn’t play very well against Edinburgh, getting sin-binned, and while he will now be up against a fit Maro Itoje, he is still one of the standout second rows in the world.
I didn’t think he dived at Murrayfield in that key penalty reversal. I watched it back 10 or 15 times and he just made a meal of it, a bit of gamesmanship. Ultimately if he is on your team, he was taken off the ball. If you’re an Edinburgh fan he dived.
Those were the small margins the last day and there will be smaller again here. It’s going to be a proper battle and it will boil down to whether Saracens can stay disciplined. Their discipline isn’t good and is one of their flaws.
VERDICT – Saracens are going win by six. It’s going to be a close game that will come down to the small margins. Saracens will have the edge with their big-game players wanting to prove a point.
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