Pride of Lions on show as Saracens face Munster

Julian GUYER
English fly-half Owen Farrell plays for the Saracens along with five other players who will be on the British and Irish Lions team facing New Zealand

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland will be an especially interested observer when title-holders Saracens take on Munster in a European Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin on Saturday.

Saracens had six players, the largest representation of any club, in the Lions squad unveiled by Gatland for the upcoming tour of New Zealand.

That England sextet of Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are all set to play against Munster.

But if the Irish province's Lions trio of scrum-half Conor Murray and back-rows CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony are also on show, nearly a quarter of Gatland's 41-man squad could feature in the eagerly anticipated clash.

"What a game that is going to be," said Andy Farrell, one of Gatland's assistant coaches with the Lions.

"Two sides that are very confident in the way they are playing, two sides that seem to be comfortable in what they are about as men and as a team."

Munster, twice former European champions, saw off four-time continental kings Toulouse 41-16 in the quarter-finals, with Saracens equally overwhelming in defeating Glasgow 38-13.

But a far closer contest is expected at Lansdowne Road this weekend.

Former dual-code international Andy Farrell, the father of Saracens and England goalkicker Owen and himself a former Saracens player, is well-placed to assess Munster too in his 'day job' of Ireland defence coach.

Munster, always assured of passionate support from their loyal fans, have been riding an even greater wave of emotion this season following the shock death of popular coach Anthony Foley on the eve of a Champions Cup pool match in Paris in October.

- 'Army of red' -

But recent campaigns have seen London club Saracens -- also the reigning English champions -- buck the trend in European club rugby by winning high-stakes games away from home.

"I think Saracens have been masters over the last period of time of playing the game in front of them, no matter where they are playing," said Andy Farrell.

"But I am sure they are aware of the army of red that is going to come to the Aviva (Lansdowne Road), and a Munster side that is bang on form at this moment in time. I wouldn't call it, I definitely wouldn't."

Ireland No 9 Murray, currently sidelined with a nerve injury affecting his shoulder and neck, could be missing for Munster, however.

Gatland, who has told Murray he must play before the end of the season to make sure of his Lions place, indicated Wednesday that the Ireland No 9 had been ruled out of the semi-final.

But Saracens coach Mark McCall, himself a former Ireland international, said: "They kick off nine a lot, we fully expect Conor Murray to be playing on Saturday.

"His kicking game is superb, everyone knows that, and their kick-chase has gone to another level."

He added: "I think the players do know what’s coming and what they are walking into and I think they are looking forward to it to be honest.

"We have got to show our experience...We have got to understand we are not playing against super-humans just because the crowd are noisy."

Saracens' Lions contingent are well aware of just how lively the crowd at Lansdowne Road can be after most of them were involved in the England side that saw their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams dashed there in a 13-9 defeat by Ireland last month.

But Munster and Ireland wing Simon Zebo, speaking before he was overlooked by the Lions, was under no illusions that crowd fervour alone would see Saracens toppled.

"Saracens are the defending champions and are an unbelievable side," said Zebo.

"We will show them respect but, having said that, we will give it our best shot."

With prop Mako Vunipola fit after a knee injury, Saracens' only fitness concern is centre Duncan Taylor's bruised chest bone.