LIMERICK is gearing up to host a genuine pre-Christmas rugby cracker this Saturday as Thomond Park stages the first of Munster’s crucial back-to-back Heineken Cup pool fixtures with English giants Saracens (6pm).
Sarries currently enjoy a three-point advantage over second-placed Munster in Pool 1 ahead of Saturday evening’s high stakes clash (6pm).
The two sides will also meet at Vicarage Road in the return fixture on Sunday, December 16 at 3pm.
Munster have won all three of their previous Heineken Cup meeting with Saracens, including a semi-final clash in 2008 and two breath-taking wins in their pool fixtures in 1999-2000. A last gasp try from Keith Wood and a terrific conversion from Ronan O’Gara, steered Munster to an unlikely 31-30 victory over Sarries in their Thomond Park meeting in January 2000, a result which secured the Irish province’s passage into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.
Munster head coach, Rob Penney has a number of big selection calls to make ahead of the weekend’s tie, with the make-up of his midfield pairing and back-row combination attracting most interest.
Munster back-row Tommy O’Donnell is the one player from last weekend’s PRO12 encounter with Glasgow Warriors who is considered doubtful for Saturday’s Heineken Cup clash with Saracens. O’Donnell was in blistering form in the opening half, setting up the first try and scoring the second, before an ankle injury forced him to retire in the 48th minute. Were the UL-Bohs clubman to miss the first of the back-to-back this weekend, Munster management remain optimistic that he will back in consideration for the second game in London on Sunday week.
Meanwhile, Limerick prop Alan Cotter has returned from his short-term deal with Bath Rugby. The 25 year old tighthead prop is set to train with the Munster squad in UL this week.
Versatile Munster forward Donnacha Ryan said it was crucial that the side improve on aspects of their play from their bonus point victory over Glasgow in the RaboDirect PRO12 at Thomond Park this weekend.
Munster did manage to move up to fourth place in the PRO12 table on the back of securing a five-point haul, with their new South African back-row CJ Stander bagging two tries in a Man of the Match display.
Donnacha Ryan said: “In the Heineken Cup you get punished an awful lot more if you’re not careful. We need to up the standards. We were a bit sluggish in the second half. Saracens are doing brilliantly in the Premiership and they’ve had a fantastic start to the Heineken Cup.
“We’re certainly going to be up against it. We’ll have to up our standards about 25% or 30%. We’re going to be up against it.”
“We need to sharpen up those turnovers.”
Head coach Rob Penney agreed that improvement was needed ahead of Sarries visit. Four members of Saracens backline, Owen Farrell, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Chris Ashton, started England’s stunning autumn international success over New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday.
Coach Penney said: “I still think we’re way off in terms of where we need to be. But seven days is a long time in footie. Hopefully, Saracens will be visiting a cauldron next weekend and it will be really difficult to come away from here with anything, given the amount of passion and support the Munster people will bring next Saturday.”