Murray blow leaves Munster hopes hanging by a thread
Keatley the key as Foley's Houdini men bid for another miracle escape with European season on the line in London
WRITTEN OFF? Check. Backs to the wall? Check. Qualification unlikely, but still mathematically possible? Check.
Here Munster go again.
Writing the Reds off has long been deemed an unwise occupation, but sometimes the prospect of them emerging from the latest hole they've dug just seems impossible.
Yet they have earned their reputation as the miracle men through years of Houdini acts. If they pull one off today and win their 100th match in Europe's top competition, it will rank high in the annals.
They travelled to London yesterday with just one scrum-half on board in Duncan Williams after Conor Murray failed to recover from his neck injury.
Murray's absence saw the difficulty-level of the task ahead upgraded from tough to nigh-on impossible. The banner that hangs from the Thomond Park rafters about 'the brave and the faithful' will be tested to its limits.
Saracens are not Clermont, but they have been a consistent top four European team over the last three seasons and on their 4G pitch they are a strong proposition.
The equation is as simple as it gets this weekend across the Champions Cup pools for both team: win or bust. If that doesn't focus the minds of sides used to going deep in the tournament, nothing will.
Munster's name counts for something on weeks like this. Saracens are expecting a performance and Anthony Foley will be hoping to glimpse fear in the eyes of the home players.
Tradition won't win the game, but it sets an expectation that the visiting side can pull something special off again. The fans who managed to get through Saracens' 'no Irish accents' vetting process will count on it.
Mindset won't be a problem, but executing a successful game-plan against a fast, well-organised and dogged Sarries team will.
Munster will rely on making as few mistakes as possible, blitzing the ruck and going after Saracens at scrum and lineout time. Their back-three's best hope of seeing the ball is likely to come from chasing kicks, with Denis Hurley's selection ahead of JJ Hanrahan setting out a stall.
Hurley and Pat Howard are there to match Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch for size and to carry hard in the midfield. The burden of kicking will fall on the shoulders of Ian Keatley in Murray's absence, while Williams needs to control the game without putting himself at risk.
The saviour on their last visit to England, Keatley needs to produce his best performance in red if his side are to have a hope of progressing. So far, he has delivered but this is a step up.
Having been outmuscled by Clermont, the red pack need to step up to the plate as well.
Foley has gone for his strongest available front-row and they will need to get on referee Romain Poite's good side, while Dave Foley and Paul O'Connell can disrupt Jamie George's throw and mix it with Jim Hamilton and Alistair Hargreaves.
The Saracens lineout is not what it was in the time of Steve Borthwick and the loss of the suspended George Kruis has robbed them of another weapon. If Munster can disrupt their opponents' primary possession, then they will have a chance.
The back-row will need to be clever, picking their rucks to attack to avoid being sucked in in defence.
Captain Peter O'Mahony needs to control his fury and tackle like a demon, while the hard track should suit Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander with ball in hand.
Their lines of attack could do with a little upgrading, however, as round-the-corner carrying won't do it on the quick pitch. If Munster can get their big men off Keatley's shoulder and move the point of attack into midfield, then they can make inroads.
Given Howard and Hurley's size, the fly-half won't be short of runners, but he has to be careful to ensure the home side's so-called 'Wolf-pack' defence don't isolate the ball carriers and force turnovers.
Saracens thrive on their opponents' mistakes. Hence, Munster will keep it low risk but have pace on their bench to unleash when the game loosens up in the final quarter. The main job is to keep in the hunt.
Foley spoke this week about taking Saracens' strengths away from them, while Mark McCall will hope his side can bring their best.
"We have phenomenal games in us when we've needed them. We've proved that. We know this is the biggest game of the season so far," the former Ulster centre said.
He knows what's coming, having endured defeat when the sides met at Thomond Park in October. Foley spoke about repeating that trick, but his ex-Ireland team-mate will recall the moments before Rhys Gill's crazy sin-binning when his team looked the more likely to make the breakthrough.
When Chris Ashton and Billy Vunipola got going that night, Munster struggled to live with them. Owen Farrell will look to involve the troublesome pair at every opportunity.
McCall is right, Sarries do have big games in them but they have been all too infrequent this season. Ian McGeechan has pondered whether losing two finals last season scarred them mentally and their players have faced questions about their brittleness this week.
That said, they are enjoying a stronger season than Munster, who have performed inconsistently all year.
They remain capable of big performances, as they showed against Leinster home and away, but the defeats to Glasgow, Clermont and Connacht on the road are all of concern.
When their big names play, they generally perform, and Murray's absence will be costly.
Williams has done well since being booed off by the Thomond Park crowd on the opening day of the season, but he is not of the same class as the man he deputises for. The worst case scenario involves the scrum-half getting injured, because Foley has no alternative on the bench, where Ronan O'Mahony, JJ Hanrahan and fit-again Keith Earls - in line for his 100th cap - can make an impact.
If Munster can control the game enough for them to come on and up the tempo, they'll be doing well.
The omens are bad and the bookies have abandoned faith. Normally, it's just how they like it, but this one looks a step too far.
Saracens - A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, P du Plessis; J Hamilton, A Hargreaves (capt); K Brown, J Burger, B Vunipola. Reps: B Sharman, R Barrington, J Johnston, M Itoje, E Joubert, N de Kock, C Hodgson, C Wyles .
Munster - F Jones; A Conway, P Howard, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; J Cronin, D Casey, BJ Botha; D Foley, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: E Guinazu, J Ryan, S Archer, B Holland, Dave O'Callaghan, R O'Mahony, JJ Hanrahan, K Earls.
Ref - R Poite (France)
Saracens v Munster,
Live, BT Sport, 1pm
Saracens v Munster - Guide to the Game
Form guide: Saracens WWWWL; Munster LLWLW
Match betting: Saracens 4/11, Munster 2/1, Draw 20/1;
Handicap: Saracens (-7) 10/11, Munster (+7) 10/11, Draw (-10) 20/1;
Key man: Ian Keatley
The undisputed main man in the wake of JJ Hanrahan's decision to leave, Keatley's accurate kicking has kept Munster in the tournament to date and they need him to produce his best at Allianz Park. Anthony Foley's game-plan must be implemented with the utmost precision if they are to keep their European dream alive and, with Conor Murray out of the picture, the onus falls on the Dubliner's shoulders.
Three things Munster must do
1 Keep Duncan Williams safe
Injury has robbed Foley of his Lions scrum-half Murray and back-up Cathal Sheridan, meaning Duncan Williams is the last man standing. With no obvious replacement on the bench, the Corkman's safety must be protected at all times. It is always the forwards' responsibility to look after their half-backs, but Paul O'Connell and Co have an extra duty to keep Williams on the park.
2 Stay patient
Murray described the game-plan that got the better of Sarries back in October as "boring" and something similar will be required this lunchtime. The Premiership side thrive on errors, love to counterattack from loose kicks and force penalties when players get isolated. Munster must hunt in packs, stick to their plan and hope Saracens flinch first.
3 Make a nuisance of themselves
In the air, on the ground, everywhere; Munster have to get under Saracens' skin. Whether it's rattling Owen Farrell, disrupting Jamie George's throw or winning the breakdown battle, the visitors can only win if they disrupt Saracens at every turn.