Rassie Erasmus and his Munster side will face reigning holders Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in the Champions Cup Semi Final this afternoon at 3.15pm. Despite being played in Dublin, there promises to be a home like atmosphere for the Men in Red as they welcome the Premiership champions to the capital.
This will be Munster’s first Champions Cup semi final. However, it will be a tournament record 12th European Cup semi final for Munster. The last time they reached this stage was in 2014, where they were beaten by Clermont in France. The last time Munster reached the final of the competition was in 2008, where they overcame Toulouse in a classic in Cardiff.
Munster have played their best rugby so far this season in Europe, beginning with their 38-17 dismantling of Glasgow at Thomond Park in the first round, all to way up to their comprehensive win over Toulouse in the quarter final. In the meantime they have beaten Racing 92 twice and picked up wins against Leicester as well as a second victory over Glasgow. Their only reversal came courtesy of a last minute defeat against Leicester in Welford Road.
Yet Saracens will be favourites in Dublin and indeed to win out the competition once more. Their ability to use width coincided with their immense strength has seen them go undefeated through the competition. Should they avoid defeat against Munster, they will equal the longest undefeated streak in European Cup history which is 17 games, set by Leinster between 2010 and 2012.
This week saw three Munster players selected for Warran Gatland’s Lions squad. Those selected were Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Saracens had 6 players named in the 41-man-squad. Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Owen Farrell were all selected from the English club, illustrating their quality.
However, Conor Murray, arguably Munster’s most vital player will miss the clash as he continues to recover from the Shoulder injury he suffered in the penultimate round of the six nations. Duncan Williams, who was so impressive against Toulouse in his absence will once more deputise for the Patrickswell man.
Munster will be pleased to see CJ Stander named to start after missing the previous two Pro 12 games with injury. The No.8 is the tournaments leading ball carrier with 114 while no one else has carried over a 100 times. Stander will be keen to lock horns with Vunipola who he matched up so well against, earlier this year when Ireland played England in the Aviva.
Rory Scannell, who has been a revelation for Munster this year has also recovered from his ankle injury to be named at inside centre alongside Jaco Taute. The pair have been key to Munster’s success this season and will be crucial Sunday against the Sarcacens duo of Brad Barritt and Marcelo Lopez.
Andrew Conway comes in on the wing for Munster whilst Darren Sweetnam continues to follow concussion protocol after suffering the injury early on against Ulster last weekend. He joins Simon Zebo and Keith Earls in the back three.
While Saracens are favourites, should Munster play to their full potential, there may be a shock on the cards in the Aviva.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (Capt.), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O’Callaghan, Jean Deysel, Ian Keatley, Francis Saili, Darren Sweetnam.
SARACENS: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt, Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Titi Lamositele, Petrus du Plessis, Jim Hamilton, Schalk Burger, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Chris Wyles