Room for improvement on both sides of pressure zone
Don't be surprised if this encounter goes right down to wire
Two months ago, when the opening round of the Heineken Cup had just been run off and we were about to get into the second helping, one match-up presented itself above all others. This prospect was so stark that it was hard to focus on the second round at all, for the inclination was to fast-forward straight to rounds three and four, where the match-up would take place. That's where you found Munster and Saracens.
Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with the history between them, from the seismic home and away battles in 1999/2000 – games which shaped the modern Munster story – to the scratchy semi-final win in 2008.
The starkness materialised by close of business on the Saturday of the first weekend, back in October. First up, on a decent track in Murrayfield, Saracens had put 45 points on Edinburgh. It was Saracens' biggest total of the season, in a competitive game, and still is.
Kicking off an hour later on a bog in Paris, Munster took on a gargantuan Racing outfit and played a lot of rugby in very difficult conditions. At the time it looked like a bit too much rugby, too close to their own sticks. You could claim that the reason they came second was because of Conor Murray's loss of discipline, not the way they were trying to play, but the width seemed excessive in any case on a day when holding the ball was a challenge.
Whatever, it was hard not to see them paying a very high price if they got it wrong against Saracens. Currently second in the Premiership, the South African-inspired outfit haven't finished lower than third in the previous three seasons. Their consistency is based on a low-risk policy in their own half, and a very efficient mugging rate on the other side of the 50-metre line. It was the second part that alarmed Munster fans, if the Reds kept playing from one touchline to the other. Sarries like nothing better than burgling people who open up in the wrong part of town. Listen to Mark McCall's praise for his old pals in Ulster.
"It was the best club performance of the season so far," he says of the win in Franklins Gardens last weekend. "Their defence was suffocating – really hard to play against – and a lot of their tries now are coming from turnovers."
That's exactly what he wants for Saracens. As it happens, Ulster's kicking game, with Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Paddy Wallace filling 9, 10 and 12, is also the best in Europe and a thing of beauty no doubt to their former coach.
So we hustled on down to Thomond Park last weekend to see what shape Munster would put on their game having seen on Crimewatch that the burglars were in town. We expected them to pull their horns in a bit. It was a question of how far.
"Our analysis had said they had changed and everyone knows they've changed their style under the new coaching team," McCall says. "For me, there was a vast improvement in the success of that style and the manner of it over the (opening) three months. They played some great rugby against Glasgow the week before they played us. Even in the game they lost to Leinster in the Rabo, they played some smashing attacking rugby that day too.
"But on top of that they've got some very smart rugby players who understand how to win rugby matches, and clearly they kicked a lot more against us last Saturday than they did against Glasgow, but that wasn't a huge surprise. They still played and they're still an attacking threat – we got caught short a couple of times against them on the weekend and we're going to have to be defensively good on Sunday. I thought they brought a good balance to what they did."
Arriving at that balance was an interesting process. Rob Penney was adamant that Munster were not going back to the way they were, for the very good reason that what they were doing had stopped working. But he couldn't use an express train to take Munster where he wanted them to go. Ronan O'Gara, who was consulted on Penney's appointment in the first place, suggested that when it came to Heineken Cup rugby they would need to make a few stops along the way.
"The game as you might have seen it a few months ago to where it is now?" Penney asks. "I always talk about us putting layers on top of what we're doing, and we're just starting to establish a much more rounded game that allows us to use a multi-faceted type of rugby based not only on the conditions but also on what the opposition show us. We're still miles away yet but we're moving down that track of being a more rounded group, which is always the aim."
Between them, Penney and O'Gara got a few things right last weekend. The outhalf wasn't flawless, but he was hugely influential, and most of the buttons he pushed had the desired effect. The coach had his team in a state of mind that is the starting point for Heineken Cup games in Limerick. And he got it on the money in their pursuit of the Saracens lineout which lowered its hit rate to an unacceptable 67 per cent. So was Mark McCall all over that this past week?
"Well, I'm not saying too much about what we've done this week but yeah that was one of the areas we've looked at," he says.
It must have been painful to watch at the time? "Only to a degree. They got decent pressure on but it was really our drill that was poor. We believe that a lot of it is in our control to fix. We're confident we'll be a lot better in that area this week."
Rob Penney expects them to he a lot harder to unlock as well.
"(Steve) Borthwick is a smart man and (Mouritz) Botha is a capable lineout forward," he says. "They'll have a strategy to mitigate the issues they had last week, but any lineout is defendable. I think if you're getting over 75/80 per cent accuracy at lineout time I think you're doing quite well. So 15/20 per cent of the time your lineouts aren't going to work – and if it's at critical times when they don't work then it puts pressure on, and that's what happened the other night. We probably took a couple of extras as well which added to it. Any lineout's got vulnerability and if you can get a coordinated defence around it who knows what can happen?"
Well, here are a few things we think won't happen: Saracens will not gloss over the less-than-stellar names on the Munster team sheet and reckon this might be a regular day at the office, which Penney suspects they did in Limerick; Owen Farrell will not be in the mid 40s on his goal-kicking stats percentage; and referee Jerome Garces will feel some pressure to balance up the penalty count after his last-minute colleague, Pascal Gauzerre, chased Munster out the gate in Thomond Park.
As you would expect, Penney and co were all over this like a rash in the days after the game. With the aid of the video though the coach was able to see that not all of what Gauzerre did justified the howls from the terraces. If Penney is all about balance in what Munster are trying to do then he needs to apply that also to the breakdown, where poor technique and lots of testosterone cost them dear. Well, it would have if Farrell had delivered.
In a kickers' world of idiosyncrasies, from jutting out backsides to golf swings, Farrell's evil-eye routine is up there with the best of them. It's like he's looking up from the poker table when the rival gunslinger walks into the saloon. And in an increasing number of grounds outside of France, the place, appropriately, falls silent. Critically his nerve didn't desert him entirely last weekend.
"One of the more pleasing things was that in the last half hour of the game we showed a bit of character and a bit of fight," McCall says. "We've all witnessed teams folding and not being able to cope eventually – we were well below our best overall on the day and there was a lot we need to improve on but in that last half hour we showed a bit of composure."
That will be their starting point today. And the last half hour promises to be every bit as compelling.
Sunday Indo Sport