The first Heineken Champions Cup semi-final of the weekend sees Saracens entertain Munster at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, with the English club keen to march on to their third final in four years, whilst the Irish province are desperate to reignite their great European history.
Saracens booked the top overall seed in the group stage and reinforced their title claims with a 56-27 trouncing of Glasgow Warriors, whilst Munster’s route to the semi-finals left them somewhat more battle-tested, as they had to triumph away from home in the quarter-finals, beating Edinburgh, 17-13, at BT Murrayfield.
The two teams have been named for Saturday’s clash and we have compiled our composite XV from the 30 men taking to the pitch, but will the team with more representation back that up at the Ricoh and make it through to the final?
- Alex Goode, Saracens
Goode has been filling in at 10 recently with Owen Farrell on England duty and then missing the quarter-finals to see the birth of his first child, but there are few more adept in the 15 jersey at club level. He delivers control and management at the back, whilst also offering a versatile counter-attacking threat that regularly sees him at the heart of Saracens attacks and tries. England’s loss has been Saracens’ gain this season.
- Andrew Conway, Munster
The winger has been in standout form for Munster this season and has had the rare skill of making the players around him look better. Whenever he gets his hands on the ball, he tends to make a break, beat a defender or at least give his side a few metres from which to run onto the ball and generate momentum. His work defensively and in the air are solid, too, so that attacking x-factor just pushes him ahead of Sean Maitland.
- Alex Lozowski, Saracens
A nod to the power and direct-running threat of Chris Farrell, here, but Lozowski’s armoury is just a bit more extensive than the Irishman at this position. Lozowski can straighten the line, too, but it’s his speed, footwork and distribution in the 13 channel which separate him from the competition. A second kicking option is always a valuable thing to have.
- Brad Barritt, Saracens
One of the tougher calls, with Rory Scannell having been in excellent form for Munster of late. Barritt, however, is pivotal to Saracens’ defensive structure and he seems to thrive on this high-stakes contests in knockout rugby. His return from injury could be even more valuable to Saracens than that of teammate Mako Vunipola.
- Liam Williams, Saracens
A 59-capped Wales international and a British Irish Lion, Williams has excelled since making the move to Saracens. Much as Goode does, Williams provides Saracens with a multitude of skills in the back three and excels in their dogged and aggressive defensive approach, just as he much does in their ambitious and fluent attack. His duel with Conway will be one of the more interesting head-to-heads.
- Owen Farrell, Saracens
Back in the saddle after duties with England and as a father, Farrell lives for days like these at the business end of the club season. If the game is a tight and tense affair, which it could very well be between these two teams, he will provide a steady hand on the tiller and ensure that Saracens are playing the game in the right areas of the pitch. If it breaks up and becomes a looser contest, he is the kind of ball-handler and playmaker that can still thrive as a first receiver. Whatever the type of match that unfurls on Saturday, Saracens will be confident that Farrell gives them an edge.
- Conor Murray, Munster
There has been some criticism of Murray’s performances this season, but they have not been anywhere approaching bad, it’s just a mark of the levels he has played at in recent years that any dip, no matter how small, warrants a considerable reaction. Murray’s accuracy and depth of pass close to the ruck could be key for Munster in this one, with Saracens’ aggressive defence occasionally over-chasing to prevent width, which in turn can create holes on the inside.
- Dave Kilcoyne, Munster
With Mako Vunipola playing his first game back after a lengthy injury absence, this is made a more straightforward selection. Kilcoyne has been excellent for Munster in recent seasons and has only been denied more acclaim at the international level by the impressive pair of Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. Saracens’ scrum has faltered at times this season and Munster will fancy Kilcoyne to be at his destructive best on Saturday, potentially drawing a few penalties out of the English side and giving the province a good foundation from which to attack and control field position.
- Jamie George, Saracens
Dylan Hartley‘s injury issues this season have seen George not only take hold of the England two jersey, but also establish himself, beyond dispute, as the bar-setting hooker in the Gallagher Premiership. Whilst Saracens scrum has faltered at times, the lineout has been almost flawless and George is a big a contributor to that. Throw into the mix his work in the defensive line and as a ball-carrier and he’s a shoe-in here, albeit with Niall Scannell deserving a more than honourable mention for his ability, too.
- John Ryan, Munster
Like Kilcoyne, Ryan will have ambitions of exerting superiority over the Saracens scrum. The tighthead is more than capable of delivering it and the set-piece, given Peter O’Mahony’s defensive jumping ability, is an area where Munster could prosper on Saturday. Saracens have sorely missed Juan Figallo this season.
- Maro Itoje, Saracens
Itoje is another of Saracens’ players who seems to relish the big matches and, finals aside, there are none bigger than this weekend’s match-up. Jean Kleyn may have the edge in the power stakes close to the ruck, but Itoje’s work at the contact area, his line-speed and his carrying ability if he is able to build up some speed, are all up there with the best second rows in world rugby. His leadership will be key, too.
- Tadhg Beirne, Munster
Speaking of second rows who are effective at the breakdown, Beirne has taken his Scarlets form and only built on it since making the move to Munster. George Kruis might be the more adept lock in international rugby, but given club rugby has a tendency to be slightly more open and fast-paced, Beirne’s skill set just edges him ahead in this contest.
- Peter O’Mahony, Munster
From exceptional leadership to his predatory work at the lineout, O’Mahony is a given in the six jersey. He, like Murray, has come in for some unfair flak this season, predominately centred around performances for Ireland, rather than Munster, but he is still one of, if not the best blindside flanker currently playing the game. How he deals with the abrasive pairing of Jackson Wray and Mike Rhodes could go a long way to deciding this game.
- Jackson Wray, Saracens
There are two underappreciated men in the seven jerseys this week, in the forms of Wray and Jack O’Donoghue. Neither get a look in at international level, but both are fantastically consistent and effective performers at club level. Both carry well, influence the breakdown and bring energy in defence, but we’ve ultimately gone for Wray, given his experience and success at this level, as well as the fact a clean bill of health has seen him be able to be more influential of late.
- Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Put aside the recent off-field issues and the edge has to go with Vunipola on this one, although there’s not much in it, with CJ Stander having been one of the most consistent producers in European rugby this season with Munster. That extra dynamism Vunipola brings swings it ever so slightly his way, although it remains to be seen how the reaction from the crowd will affect his performance on Saturday.
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