Saturday 21 September 2019

Revived Saracens up for Munster dogfight

Saracens and the ‘Wolfpack’ will be aiming to be top dogs on Saturday
Saracens and the ‘Wolfpack’ will be aiming to be top dogs on Saturday
David Kelly

David Kelly

To become the top dog in Europe, sometimes a team need to cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war, to quote 'The Bard'.

Furry, four-legged friends found their way on to the University of Limerick training field this week; suggestions that the yawning gap since the side's last European title might require extra doggedness would rankle with some of Munster's fiercest beasts.

Then again, as Peter O'Mahony has regularly been the first to admit, Munster, without a European title since claiming their second in 2008, have too often been akin to barking dogs who never bite, repeatedly failing to finish as leaders of the pack.

Their renowned opponents this weekend, Saracens, are one of the sides who have supplanted Munster's once-eminent status this decade; indeed coach Mark McCall overtly points to the 2006 and 2008 champions as chief role models for his quiet revolution.

Former Ulster coach McCall recognised Munster's tortuous path to the summit and the sacrifices required to do so; and so he threw his team's character to the wolves. Literally.

Famed English defence coach Paul Gustard instigated the now famous 'Wolfpack' defence which would propel the side to the top; before they beat Ulster in a 2013 quarter-final, he even introduced some wild dogs into his training sessions.

They would lose the subsequent semi-final, then lose a final, before finally reaching their own Holy Grail in 2016, precisely 10 years after Munster's breakthrough, adding a second in succession for good measure, and easily swatting aside the Irishmen en route.

Both teams are now hunters this year, however, as Saracens' attempted three-peat faltered last term while Munster, also still stuck on two titles, once more stuttered at the semi-final stage.

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Something has to give this weekend and while Saracens remain the tournament favourites, Munster are ready to unleash their dogs of war in a quest to match the famed Englishmen's defence.

"Well, they've got the best defence in Europe so I don't think they're too worried about copying our template!" smiles Jamie George, the English international hooker, restricted by his club, it seems, from discussing Billy Vunipola's "responsibilities".

"I think Paul Gustard was very innovative in the way that he coached to bring wolves to the changing-rooms, it provided good craic but yeah, you can liken our defence to theirs certainly and bringing in stuff like that it's nice to keep things fresh.

"But we've had a really good week in terms of our meetings and preparations as well."

George feels Saracens' demise in Europe last season, when Leinster wiped their eye in a stunning quarter-final win - they still recovered to win their domestic title - was only a temporary blip in their dominance.

"We were incredibly disappointed with the result but the important thing for us was that we were able to focus on the domestic competition, and we were able to go on and win that and I think that was a huge sign regarding us as a club.

"Sometimes when you lose games you learn a huge amount about yourselves and we realised that potentially last year that we weren't at our best at all, that we were actually quite a long way off that and that became apparent in that Leinster game when we were out-played and out-classed.

"But that galvanised us and made us closer, and we're certainly a better squad on the back of it.


"We were made aware of what it took to be the best in Europe and we potentially then took that into the domestic competition.

"We're certainly nearly back there and the thing I like about that is the similarities between 2016 and 2017 was we were winning while knowing in the back of our minds there was still more.

"We know that we will have to be at our best to beat Munster on Saturday. We are here to win titles and if we don't, we are disappointed.

"Considering their history, it would be incredible to move ahead of them in terms of titles won."

Munster, like a dog with a bone, won't concede that argument easily.

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