THE Munster players and management team may not admit it openly, but Saturday’s mammoth Heineken Cup Round 3 clash with Saracens at Thomond Park amounts to a season defining fixture.
With the Aviva Premiership side - currently riding high in second place in their domestic league - boasting a three-point lead over Munster in Pool, defeat for Rob Penney’s side would effectively end their hopes of making it through to the knock-out stages of Europe’s premier club rugby competition.
With success in the Heineken Cup serving to define the province, another other than a home victory will come as a major disappointment.
Saturday’s opponents certainly won’t make it easy. Four members of their backline, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell playing starring roles in England’s sensational victory over the All-Blacks in the autumn internationals last weekend. Throw into the mix the vast experience of players such as Steve Borthwick, Neil de Kock, Schalk Brits, Kelly Brown and Mouritz Botha and you get an idea of how difficult Munster’s task is likely to be.
Munster’s task has not been helped by an unfortunate run of injuries to key back-row players. Recent South African signing CJ Stander was the latest to be ruled out of Saturday’s game after breaking a bone in his right hand during a Man of the Match display against Glasgow Warriors in the RaboDirect PRO12 last weekend.
With Stander joining Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall and Tommy O’Donnell on the sidelines, Penney could well be tempted to go with a back-row of Dave O’Callaghan, Peter O’Mahony and the fit-again James Coughlan to face Sarries.
The make-up of Munster’s centre partnership had been generating plenty of debate, but Penney opted for the combination of James Downey and Keith Earls last weekend against the Warriors and may well be tempted to keep faith with the duo when his starting line-up to face Sarries is revealed at lunch-time this Friday.
Donnacha Ryan could well join Donncha O’Callaghan in the second row, with a front row of Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and BJ Botha completing the pack.
Botha should be able to provide Munster with some tips on what to expect from Sarries this weekend as he played with their centre Brad Barritt and vastly experienced hooker John Smit while playing with the Sharks in South Africa before moving to Europe.
The Munster back-line is likely to feature the same personnel as started against Glasgow with one exception. Scrum-half Conor Murray, who missed that bonus point win, is likely to be restored to the starting line-up in place of Duncan Williams.
The last time a top English side visited Thomond Park for a crucial Heineken Cup clash, James Downey found himself in the away dressing room as Northampton came to Limerick.
From his time spent in England, Downey is well aware of the threat Sarries pose this weekend.
Downey said: “They’ve a strong back three; they’re pretty strong all over really to be fair to them. They’ve a good pack and they are well drilled and know what they’re doing.
“I’ve played against them many times and I know the way they play as well.”
“I suppose with a couple of new signings they’ve expanded their game a little bit.
“They’re a quality side and they’ve some internationals coming back with a good buzz after beating the All Blacks so we’ll have to watch them carefully.”
Munster have won all three of their previous Heineken Cup meetings with Saracens, including a semi-final victory at the Ricoh Arena in 2008 and an unforgettable home-and-away double over the English side in the 1999-2000 season when Ronan O’Gara displayed incredible composure to land crucial last gasp kicks in both fixtures.
Munster travel to Vicarage Road for the return fixture with Saracens on Sunday week. Anything less than a home victory this weekend would effectively end Munster’s interest in the Heineken Cup before Christmas.
The sense of anticipation has been on the rise all week and the remaining terrace tickets are likely to be snapped up in time for kick-off.
Another backs-to-the-wall scenario for Munster. The side has traditionally come out fighting in the past. More of the same needed.