Sunday 18 March 2018

Erasmus hails champions Sarries as 'complete team'

Conor Murray trained on his own yesterday as he continues his recovery from injury. Photo:
Conor Murray trained on his own yesterday as he continues his recovery from injury. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

If a team's character can be viewed through the prism of their head coach, then it was easy to see why the Munster players could only view blue sky, ignoring the clouds, as they took to their UL training paddock yesterday afternoon.

Rassie Erasmus and Munster are at ease with themselves as they begin their most momentous week in three seasons, ending with a semi-final Aviva date against Champions Cup favourites and reigning champions, Saracens.

That they togged out yet again without their totemic scrum-half Conor Murray will have not furrowed their brows as much as it may have done some supporters, nor too the absence of ankle injury victims Rory Scannell and CJ Stander.

Munster have begun to appreciate that what is available and present is much more relevant than what is not.

A cursory meeting with Stander in the team HQ earlier allows one to pass on the positive update issued by his boss: "He says you're good to go!" A wordless thumbs up and a smile reveals all.

This time 12 months ago, Munster were doggedly scrapping merely to gain entry to Europe's elite; that pressure is a world away from anything they may face on the field this season.

The heavy consequences of failure weighed them down so heavily as last season stuttered to a finish; now, with home semi-finals in both competitions to anticipate, the word has no meaning for them.

They have come too far to worry too much about where they may end up.

WATCH - Rassie Erasmus gives frank response to question regarding his Munster future

As Erasmus reflects upon another improbable comeback from a Saracens team minus five rested players, away to Northampton on Sunday, his marvelling at their prowess betrays not anxiety, but reality.

"They have that emotional experience and intelligence and calmness," he notes. "They have been there before. So that will always be our biggest challenge. They have been there and done that and will never be over-awed by the situation.

"The big challenge will for us to see it as a privilege for us to play, a nice day's experience.

"If it's 50 against us or four for us, we're not sure how far we've grown this year. It shouldn't be daunting. It should be nice to see what we can do."

Munster have experienced too much to conjure up additional angst now; the certainty in physical and mental performance that has brought them here will be sufficient unto the day.

If it is not sufficient, perhaps, to beat a team that may be better than them on the day, so be it.

"If you take out the 23-man Munster squad and start comparing them to Saracens nine months ago, you would have said this is not going to work, that is not going to work, this guy is better than us, so is this guy," adds Erasmus.

He is responding to a question about Murray's absence, with Duncan Williams primed to replicate a more than adequate quarter-final appearance against Toulouse.


But Erasmus could just as well be referring to the entire squad, who have, together, accelerated in terms of maturity and performance throughout an occasionally fraught campaign.

Just being here is occasion for celebration at what has been achieved, rather than consternation at what may not.

Aside from Murray, a positive injury update heartened the coach.

"I don't think Rory Scannell will be out this weekend, I think he will have a good chance," says Erasmus of his second play-maker, who suffered what seemed to be a serious ankle knock against Ulster.

"Jaco Taute might be back, CJ Stander might be available. I think Darren Sweetnam will be able to play after that head knock."

Murray's presence would, of course, boost his side's ranks, particularly as Erasmus reckons Mark McCall's Saracens will present the toughest task of the season.

"They are one of the most complete teams, I'm talking Southern Hemisphere with Super Rugby, the Crusaders, those kinds of teams" observes Erasmus.

"They started out as a team who suffocated and strangled teams out of life and hope and belief during matches.

"Now they've developed into a team that does that but when they're on attack they have these almost rugby league mini moves which seem to come off, then matching that with a great kicking game and great finishers.

"They are right up there. And the way they've contracted and balanced their squad with foreign players and building momentum, squad size, that's the team everybody aspires to be like."

Including Munster themselves, a team who once occupied such exalted heights and seek to return there.

Much has changed in Munster but some things remain unaltered, including their preference to retain the familiar status as the underdog.

Irish Independent

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