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Old team-mates Foley & McCall face season-defining week

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Munster head coach Anthony Foley

Munster head coach Anthony Foley

SPORTSFILE

Munster head coach Anthony Foley

ANTHONY FOLEY and Mark McCall lost both of the internationals they played together for Ireland during the dark days of the 1990s.

On Saturday, one of the three Irish coaches remaining in the running for the Champions Cup quarter-finals will be eliminated from the race, and it is these former team-mates who will bear the brunt of the result.

They soldiered together against Australia in November 1996 and again the following January, when Italy won in Dublin. Neither moment will be high on the career highlights reel of two men who captained their provinces to Heineken Cup success - albeit McCall was injured when he lifted the trophy for Ulster in 1999.

They are at very different points in their coaching careers, but there is plenty of pressure on their shoulders as they approach their lunchtime rendezvous in north London this Saturday.

The reduction in size of the Champions Cup was always going to put the squeeze on someone at the pool stages, but when three of last season's semi-finalists were thrown together, along with Sale Sharks, it rammed the point home.

Of the three, Saracens might have fancied their chances considering their defensive masterclass against Clermont in last year's knockout game, but instead the French side have raced away with Pool 1, despite losing their opening game in London.

Allianz Park may be a new venue for Munster's storied tradition of getting out of corners across the continent, but it is a daunting one.

It doesn't have the intimidating atmosphere of the south of France or the old world charm of some other English venues. No, what Saracens possess is a fast-track pitch that suits their pacey wide-men; something Foley has moved to prepare for by hosting training sessions on the artificial surface at UL since the turn of the year.

Only Northampton Saints have won there this season, and Sarries will be banking on their home comforts helping them on their way to a trip to Clermont that could propel them into the last eight.

However, their recent form has raised concerns as McCall's men have struggled to perform to their old high standards without their retired captain Steve Borthwick, the departed Matt Stevens and injured talisman Schalk Brits. Owen Farrell, dropped by England in November, has struggled for form and it has led to some soul-searching.

The fly-half missed last week's defeat to Gloucester but is expected to return this week. England lock George Kruis is now a doubt, having been cited for foul play during that game.

Like Munster, they sit third in their domestic table but are losing ground on the top two, Northampton and Bath. Questions about their direction are beginning to surface and the visit of Munster is being seen as a major test of their ability to turn things around.

Over the weekend, no less a figure than Ian McGeechan raised questions over the psychological damage they might have suffered when they lost two major finals in a week last May.

"Sometimes you cannot get the continuity you want for a variety of reasons," the legendary former Lions coach wrote.

"Munster will pose a significant threat. They will have a real crack at Saracens.

"Teams are playing less rugby against them now and are much more careful about when they move the ball. When Saracens play from their own set-piece, apart from driving maul at line-outs, they are not playing any rugby at all.

"They look one-dimensional. Saracens are almost at a point where they need to move their game on."

Munster, meanwhile, are in the middle of a somewhat confusing first season under Foley, who has lamented his side's lack of consistency.

On course for the Pro12 play-offs after Saturday's win over Zebre, their European displays have failed to hit the heights of previous seasons, albeit in a hellishly difficult pool.

Expansive

Foley has gone back to basics to a degree after the wide-wide style of Rob Penney, but just as McGeechan is calling for Saracens to develop their game, the two-time European champions could do with some more expansive play.

They looked in trouble for stretches when these sides collided in Limerick back in October, but took advantage of the extra man when Rhys Gill picked up a silly yellow card.

It was ruthless stuff, but it was also simple rugby that beat the English side, who couldn't cope with Munster's physicality.

Quality rucking and powerful carrying also did for Leinster, but others have managed the Reds around the fringes and McCall is sure to have prepared his side for trench warfare.

Foley was part of the Munster team who launched their extraordinary European odyssey with a famous win over Saracens back in 1999, but the JJ Hanrahan transfer is an indication that, seven years since their last Heineken Cup success, the name has lost a little lustre.

On Saturday, he faces elimination if his side fail to win in London. Across in the home coaching booth, McCall is in the same boat. Both teams have been regulars in the knockout stages in recent times, but the show will go on without at least one of them this year.

Defeat is unthinkable now, but the consequences will be very real come April.

Irish Independent