There is a sense of Déjà vu in the Champions Cup this season, as Munster have reached the semi-finals once again, but may find that their old nemesis Saracens prove to be too strong for them at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
Two years ago Saracens went to the Aviva and rode out a first half of Munster dominance before then taking control of the game at the scrum, eventually winning comprehensively, with a 26-10 success an entirely deserved one.
Time has passed since then – indeed home head coach Mark McCall believes that this is a better side than his 2017 European Champions – and Saracens now have home advantage and the ultimate motivation of regaining their crown, having lost it last year, and look to be deserved favourites.
After they took the Premiership last season Europe has once again been the very clear focus and that was shown once again when they rested many players for their trip to Bristol. England captain Owen Farrell missed the entire game, while Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Maro Itoje were dropped to the bench in a side that had six changes from their win over Newcastle.
Just under a month ago, were even more impressive winners against Glasgow in the Quarter-Finals than two years ago when they scythed through the Scots 58-27, playing some of their best rugby of the season. Today’s task against Munster will be much harder, but a key factor in that game was injury and that might bite Munster here.
The arrival of Joey Carbery had given Munster a top class flyhalf operator and whilst Tyler Bleyendaal’s experience, game management and kicking could prove to be ideal, Carbery is a major loss for this game. Perhaps even more of a blow is the absence of Keith Earls, who did not make it through training this week. Earls scored both tries as Munster edged out Edinburgh, and his unique running lines and kicking might be a bigger loss to them than Carbery.
Johann van Graan still has plenty of firepower to pick from, though. In what was a notable show of strength, he made 12 changes to his side and saw them run out 37-28 winners at Benetton, who had a 10-0 lead. In the shape of Captain Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander he has a hell of a pack to go to war with, whilst Rory Scannell, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway also give Munster more attacking scope than previously.
However, Saracens are fully stocked with Brad Barritt recovering from an ankle injury to slot back in at inside-centre alongside Alex Lozowski, for a side that contains Alex Goode, Sean Maitland, Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, and Billy Vunipola to boot.
A handicap of around eight points is probably high when looking at the two teams man to man, and this is a different side to the one that lost 26-10 in Dublin two years ago (and in Bordeaux last year). However, this Saracens side – which is fully fit, unlike when they lost their quarter-final to Leinster last year – has the defence to keep on top of Munster pressure and can find a way to get to another final, even if Munster manage to keep themselves within range.
2 pts Munster +9.5 (4/5 Paddy Power)