There Is No Such Place As …

Harlequins! Or: Ospreys! Or: Wasps! Or: Racing Metro! And, of course, Saracens – as we will doubtless hear tired repititions of for the rest of this week. But the existence, or otherwise, of a place called Saracens is completely irrelevant to the game this weekend. The club itself is as stable as it has been since Nigel Wray got involved – they are close to celebrating two years in Allianz Park, where they consistently attract 8,000-9,000 for Premiership games, and Mark McCall is approaching four year of quiet excellence as supremo.  And I hear the tannoy rings out clear as a bell.

McCall has finished 1st in the league three times out of four (once helped by half a season of Brendan Venter), won the grand final itself once, and was a TMO call away from doing so again last year. In the HEC, Saracens might have been memorably outclassed by nouveau riche arrivistes Toulon last year, but they thumped big game chokers Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, feeding them an ugly forty-burger. The previous years saw losses to Toulon and Clermont in the semis and quarters respectively.

The squad itself is stable and well-balanced, and has quality throughout – the pack is as strong as you would expect from a Premiership side, and there are internationals in most backline positions. They are a proper club, like it or not, and the fact that Munster is a coherent geographic entity that you can be from will not be a decisive factor in the game.

But what factors will be decisive? Saracens have been defeated only three times in two year at Allianz Park – twice to the Northampton Saints, and once (when depleted by the Six Nations) by London Oirish. They defeated (and scored four tries against) Clermont Auvergne there in Round 1 of the ERCC while Munster laboured to a last minute victory over Sale Sharks. This won’t be a matter of turning up, singing louder, and letting the cowed Britons bend the knee – an actual gameplan will be required.

And they need to win – before the season, we expected this pool to come down to bonus points, but its not going to happen – Clermont’s win in “Tomond” means that someone will finish with 5 wins, someone with 4 and someone with 3. If Munster are to avoid being the ‘3’, this is the one they need to win.

First, discipline – don’t give Saracens easy points. Saracens are the top points scorers from the boot in the Not-So-Boshiership, scoring 195 points in 13 games – a neat average of 15 points a game. With a front row of, at best, Cronin (just back from injury), Casey and BJ Botha, there is a risk Poite will earn further ire by rewarding the dominant scrum (likely to be Saracens), as he tends to do. But that is out of Munster’s control (largely) and can only be managed, as opposed to turned on its head. But if Munster start giving away breakdown penalties in their own half, the jig is up – even an easy 6 points to the boots of Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell (both kicking 80% this season) is likely to be insurmountable, the margin of error being very slim.

Regular viewers of Saracens (we don’t see enough of them – we have yet to sup from the poisonous chalice of BT Sport, but that’s likely to change, given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really) tell us that they are vulnerable to being attacked through the centres, utilizing quick hands and smart lines. Something that Dinny Hurley brings to the table, for example. Wait, what? Joking aside, a Munster selection with JJ Hanrahan at 12 is one that Saracens won’t like to see. With potential wingers of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, the last thing Saracens will want is someone who can get them the ball. A selection of Hurley will signal an attacking gameplan whose scope barely extends beyond the fringes of the ruck. Saracens will treat this as meat and drink, and is almost certainly a losing hand.

The first game between these sides was as tight as the proverbial duck’s arse until Rhys Gill went and did something stupid. Munster profited from his absence to score the game’s only try and tag on an extra three points, which ended up being the difference between the sides. The game was essentially lost by something dumb from Saracens. Flip the venue to England, and look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites – for Munster to win, they can’t rely on Lady Luck in the form of a bounce of the ball or a silly yellow card. Simply turning up and giving it all isn’t going to cut it – they’ll need a gameplan to take advantage of Saracens’ weaknesses.

Expect the game to be described as a ‘must-watch’ from all corners of the media, and while any do-or-die game involving Munster has a reasonable chance of a dramatic finale, chances are it will be spirit-sappingly dull.  Foley admitted his team needed to ‘not get bored’ executing their game-strangling kicking game in the last match, and expect more of the same here.  Conor Murray put air on the ball 17 times in that game, and we can expect something similar again – assuming he recovers from a neck injury.  The game might not be so much ‘must watch’, unless you’re really into that sort of thing, as ‘must follow’ on your Ultimate Rugby app, which could be the best vantage point, at least until the final 20 minutes which should provide a pulse-raising endgame.

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28 Comments

  1. Daveoirl

     /  January 14, 2015

    Couldn’t agree more. Nearly every article I read about this game revolves around headlines along the lines of “Munster happy being the underdogs”, “These must win games are what Munster live for”, “Chip on the shoulder could see Munster through” etc etc. All a load of crap. As you say, they need to execute a good game plan very well to win. Tight one to call, but I am going to go with Sarries for this one I’m afraid.

  2. Das Waderwurst

     /  January 14, 2015

    Just can’t see this one happening for Munster, but how many times have we said that before? If they’re within touching distance with 10 mins to go, then they have a puncher’s chance I suppose, but that’s a big ‘if’. Parity up front is highly unlikely, and I don’t think Foley’s system can be altered enough to release Earls and Zebo enough out wide. As Girry was saying earlier in the week though, I still wouldn’t be laying against them.

  3. ruckinhell

     /  January 14, 2015

    If Murray is out we have no chance. I don’t say this lightly but Duncan Williams is a terrible scrumhalf. I’ve never seen someone so deficient in the core skills of his position and the fact that he still gets regular gametime beggars belief.

    I disagree regarding the gameplan outlined by WoC- the Saracens midfield will be Brad Barritt and probably Marcelo Bosch. And the reason that Sarries are vulnerable in midfield is very much because Barritt has been out injured for spells this season, including the last month. I don’t think this is a very wise move given the deficiencies in our own midfield- whatever combo we pick will be two non internationals against two capped internationals.

    The gameplan that was used against Saracens in Thomond worked well- contestable kicks and a committed kick chase when in our half, retain possession when in their half and turn every ruck into a mess when they have the ball is the way forward in my opinion. Not least because Mr. Poite has a very laissez faire approach to the breakdown, anything goes in general. Why would we want the ball when he’s the whistler in the middle? By all means lets try and get Zebo and Earls the ball when in the right position but if “right lads, let’s play Barbarian rugby” is the answer than the question is not “How does one win knock out rugby games away from home?”

    They have also lost Kruis to suspension and Mouritz Botha to South Efrica so their lock stocks are dropping. The games I’ve seen have shown that the “Wolfpack” is very much gettable at the moment, especially in terms of maul defence.

    It won’t make for a sexy and enjoyable spectacle to suggest the above type of game but f*** the neutrals as this is the most likely way we’ll beat Saracens.

    • Donal

       /  January 14, 2015

      Totally agree on Duncan Williams, why did ye ever let Stringer go?

      • ruckinhell

         /  January 14, 2015

        Think he decided to go and there was little to be done about it; he found himself behind both Tomas O’Leary and Connor Murray so wasn’t making the matchday squads for big games and went to get the gametime elsewhere. Would welcome either himself or (as has been mooted) Tomas back with open arms. Anything to get rid of the scourge of that bloody scrumcapped catastrophe.

      • Nah, Williams has been quite good this season. Better than Isaac Boss or Paul Marshall, for example. A lot of people haven’t recognized it because they’ve developed a hatred of him over the last couple of years when he’s been very bad indeed. (Hurley is another player that everyone thinks is useless but is nevertheless having a good season so far.) Williams came on at the weekend and immediately made a try-saving tackle, as well as testing the fringes quite effectively. He’s obviously not brilliant, but if he comes on it won’t be his presence that will lose us the game, it’ll be Murray’s absence. The same would probably be true of O’Leary. I’d go so far as to say I’m not sure this season’s Williams is worse than the O’Leary that left for London Irish.

        • ruckinhell

           /  January 16, 2015

          Murray has been ruled out this morning and I think that’s game.

          Williams is a terrible scrum half – he has no control at 9 and gets sucked into rucks at an insane rate for a scrumhalf, mostly because he doesn’t trust his forwards to secure ball so takes it on himself to clean out and thus destroys the teams patterns. His pass is incredibly substandard and first receiver usually has to take it stationary to ensure that he can catch it. His box kicking is also of a very poor standard. He makes his tackles and is a threat around the fringes but those are jobs for flankers, not a scrumhalf.

          • He does have the problems you mention, but they’ve not been chronic this season by any means. And it is most definitely part of a scrum-half’s job to be a threat around the fringes. It’s also part of his job to marshal his forwards around the fringes, another thing Williams does well. I don’t think he’s a great player by any means, but he was one of our best against Leinster on Stephen’s Day, in one of our best performances of the season. You’ve got blinkers on if you can’t see that he’s a different player this season from last.

            But in any case, it’s much of a muchness, because we’re not winning over there without Murray.

          • ruckinhell

             /  January 16, 2015

            I disagree that Williams marshals his forwards, I think he sometimes acts completely independent of them. A good SH controls his forwards well, an average SH controls his forwards poorly but a terrible scrum half forgets that his two primary roles are to either pass to the first receiver or to marshal the forwards and instead gets stuck into rucks when it’s not necessary. Have a look tomorrow and count the number of times that Williams gets involved in rucks when not necessary. A break or a snipe by a team mate where he’s been isolated or a solid counter ruck from the opposition is the only time a SH should be sucked into a ruck. I can almost guarantee you that Williams will be sucked into at least 5 rucks tomorrow, if not more. This is hugely disruptive of the team patterns and usually takes at least two if not three phases to correct.

            I am very happy to say that he has improved on his performances from last year but that is damning with the ultimate faint praise. I cannot understand how he has been given a professional contract and I am even more gobsmacked that he is the only specialist scrumhalf in the Munster 23. It beggars belief. My dislike of him is based on the many flaws in his game and I base this on as recent a match as the Zebre game last weekend when time and again he took the wrong option in the second half against extremely mediocre opposition.

  4. D6W

     /  January 14, 2015

    Hard to see Munster getting a win here, despite historic ability to get out of tight spots like this. Only positive I can see is that Sarries have an Irish coach, who must be in running as Joe’s successor.

  5. Donal

     /  January 14, 2015

    From the games I have seen Saracens aren’t quite the force they were last year. Bath cut them apart playing some sexy rugby earlier this season and they were outmuscled by an excellent Northhampton who are genuine contenders for Europe.

    The scrum will be massive, particularly given the ref as you point out. When Ryan and Archer come on it could turn into a penalty production line for Saracens.

    Munster looked at their best this season attacking around the fringes where they did massive damage to Leinster. Bernard Jackman, the only man to say anything interesting on the Newstalk rugby segment last night, pointed out that Saracens will lap that up. Has Foley the nouse to significantly change his game plan for this game?

    I still think Munster are in with a serious shout of winning this if POC and POM can put in big performances, which we haven’t seen from them in red for a while.

  6. OnlyOneT

     /  January 14, 2015

    One thing that’s worth noting is away sides seem to really struggle with kicking game at Allianz park. The Saracens in goal areas are tiny, minimum required, less than two strides deep as in a ‘put the ball down on the line’ sized small. Due to the artificial pitch the bounce of the ball is always considerably longer than grass pitches. Expect a lot of scrum back as the ball is kicked dead at the weekend, if Munster want to play a position game. I’ve seen Saracens fullbacks letting the ball bounce in the 22 knowing it’ll run dead several times this season.

    Also Saracens have been pretty ordinary this year, we’ve struggled when people move the ball quickly away from contact and the defensive structure has creaked at times. Flankers don’t seem to have much impact this year either. Kruis is a loss as he’s been the main lineout man but there is still quite a bit of strength in depth, although Munster clearly have the edge in the 2nd row even if everyone was fit and available.

    • Very insightful. Thank you 1T

    • Lop12

       /  January 14, 2015

      correct. Iv seen plenty games on the back pitch in Lansdowne and the ball bounces v odd. Friends who play on it regulalry say the ball tends not to bounce into touch all that often. Definite home advantage

      • Keith Wood did mention that it’s similar to the training pitches at UL which he helped to put in (I’m hoping literally, with a shovel & the sweat of his brow) so hopefully that will help somewhat

  7. “given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really”

    It’s all well and good to play expansive high risk rugby when the presence of Bucharesti Welsh means there is no threat of relegation for eleven clubs this season, while the state of Reading Zebre and Newcastle Zebre means there’s no chance of relegation for the top 9 this year OR next. Give me a Rabo game where the result actually counts any day 😉

  8. Letthelionroar

     /  January 14, 2015

    Couldn’t agree more that a game plan and how it’s executed will determine how this one goes, personally I think the day of passion and bravery getting you through a European game is gone. Everyone is a professional in every aspect of the game now and I am sure that preparation and execution is drilled into them as the only ingredients to success and “wanting it more” alone just doesn’t cut it at this level.

    But I actually think Munster’s game plan isn’t as relevant as what Saracens decided to do. Not much has been made of the fact that it is being played on a 3G pitch but Saracens have shown that they are capable of racking up some big scores at home and play good rugby in the process. Having watched the Leinster game last week, the heightened pace and the need for total accuracy around the breakdown were apparent; I would attribute the surface to a lot of this. If the game is opened up and the above factors are at play I think Munster could really struggle. Perhaps an “all out attacking” attitude would do more damage than completing respecting Munster’s European pedigree. Keeping it tight plays into Munster’s hand and the longer the game goes with a score in it the more the scales tip in their favour.

    Most bookmakers have Munster as 6 point underdogs which seems about right to me. Unfortunately I think this is more a reflection of the type of game it is going to be rather than the matching quality of the teams. With BPs (losing and scoring) pretty much irrelevant I can easily see each team continually kicking the ball away once any sort of lead is accumulated and hoping to hold out for a win. Not too many coach’s out there have the balls in big games to decide execute a game plan that might be perceived has in risky, in this case it could lead to another big day for Munster fans.

  9. Lop12

     /  January 14, 2015

    “look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites ”

    Id agree Sarries are deservedly favourites but their form since the Munster defeat is

    Aviva

    Draw (Away leiscter)
    Loss (home to Noton)
    Loss (away Exeter)
    Win (home L Welsh)
    Win (away Newcastle by 2 pts)
    Win (home L Irish)
    Loss (away Glaws)

    and home and away wins over Sale in Champions cup, neither impressive, neither yielding a BP.

    Id say this is probably as much of a trough in form as Munster could have hoped for out of Saracens before heading over there to play based on their results since McCall took over. Sale/Welsh/Newcastle/Glaws/Irish are the bottom five clubs in the premiership as an aside so Saracens would have been hot favourites in each. id guess they only covered the handicap once (v L Welsh) if you could use that as a proxy for playing to form or not.

    Unfortunaly munsters form aint so clever either!!!

    • ruckinhell

       /  January 14, 2015

      Great post and some very good analysis. Still think Sarries are favourites but they’re not firing on all cylinders. Still, Munster have a habit of using the European Cup to get over indifferent domestic league form so it can’t be discounted that Sarries will do likewise.

      I’m going pure Gerard Thornleu on this and predicting “one for the purists” where “you’ll be able to throw a blanket over both packs”. Un peu trop anglo pour notre francophile ami, non?

    • Yeah, that’s the thing – Munster have wins over Cardiff, Dragons, Ulster, Leinster, Zebre; and losses to Clermont (x2), Glasgow, Connacht

    • This is particularly relevant given Keatley’s incredibly bad habit of kicking the ball dead, even on grass pitches. Murray will take on much of the kicking burden I expect, with Munster looking to carry the ball to the tram-lines in order to allow the wingers (two of Zebo, Earls, and Ronan O’Mahony) and Jones to challenge in the air.

  10. Yossarian

     /  January 15, 2015

    The English sides still lack a bit of strength and depth. Northampton minus Manoa just don’t look the same. I think the injuries in Saraceans definitely gives Munster a good chance.
    It kinda depends on the teams approach We could get a game goes the same way as it did in Thomond with neither side willing to play rugby in their own half. The result then was just a series of kicks(till the yellow card gave Munster the impetus to attack). I have a feeling fortune will favour the brave. If munster go for it i think Saraceans are vulnerable. If Munster have the same kicking approach and Saraceans decide to open up a bit at home i think they will win it.
    Just fingers crossed we don’t just have a long game of kick chase to start the day of rugby on Saturday!

  11. Draught Helping

     /  January 15, 2015

    Harsh to say that the home game was a tight arffair, tactics were very boring but Munster completely owned that game and Sarries NEVER got close to even looking like winning. One of their best (if not prettiest) performances of the season IMHO

  12. L.P.O.

     /  January 15, 2015

    Hmm… did you lads not describe Keet’s foray in the centre for Ireland recently as a success? Really never understood your stance on that. Hurley’s silky skills are, as you suggest, unlikely to carve Sarries apart. Given Munster aren’t short of speedsters to finish out wide, wouldn’t this Keet-the-mercurial-and-complete-centre be a fellow that Munster would start at 13, if he existed, precisely to exploit the weakness you address, and not waste his inestimable vision, decision-making and distribution skills on the wing?

    One thing is undeniable, which I gathered from your mentor, Gerry. Keet has ‘the x-factor’. He adds ‘the x-factor’ to the Munster backline, which, incidentally, itself will likely include Murray, JJ and Zebo, all of whom Gerry has also described as ‘having the x-factor’. The list of players without ‘the x-factor’ in Gerry’s world is ever diminishing.

    I blame you fellows, because if you weren’t taking the piss out of him so regularly here he’d probably have switched it up a little with the occasional je ne sais quoi.

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