By Micil Glennon
Munster will arrive in Vicarage Road on Sunday with mixed feelings after last weekend’s win over Saracens.
Firstly, they’ll know they were let off the hook by Owen Farrell’s wayward boot.
But it could have been a lot better if the England out-half, having missed four from seven, had not managed to land a vital three-pointer at the death to salvage a losing bonus point.
Munster coach Rob Penney now says this game is “must-win” and the challenge “formidable”, Munster will have to up their away game considerably to meet it.
They have lost four from six on the road this season.
They almost snatched an on-the-road win in round 1 against Racing but had they done so it would have glossed over a very poor showing.
The Irish province conceded 20 penalties - including three free-kicks - in the 15-9 win victory and can’t rely on Farrell, this time starting at out-half, to be so profligate.
Indeed Farrell’s display was exacerbated by Ronan O’Gara’s infallible boot - five from five; something similar on Sunday will go a long way towards some reward.
All Black Casey Laulala replaces the on-form Keith Earls (groin) in the only change for Munster.
Saracens are set on a quarter-final spot having bowed out meekly to Clermont at that stage last season in Vicarage Road.
The English side are unbeaten at home in the Aviva Premiership and hadn’t lost a lineout in the Heineken Cup this season prior to last week’s game.
Whether or not their 66% lineout success rate on Saturday was down to the Thomond factor or evidence that Munster had done their homework, or both, it will be ironed out in the return leg.
Charlie Hodgson has been dropped by Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. Slightly strange considering his kicking success is 88% compared to Farrell’s 43% - why wasn’t he kicking last week?
Farrell will have Richard Wigglesworth at scrum-half, while Dave Strettle, Joel Tomkins and George Kruis also start.
McCall said last week’s lacklustre effort could be pinned on the November internationals: “When you’re not together for five weeks, you’re not always as spirited as before. We have to rectify that.”
To the forefront of McCall’s thinking will surely be the fact that Munster are overwhelming favourites to come back from Edinburgh, who have lost all their games so far, with four points, and then host Racing in Thomond.
Who would bet against them securing whatever is needed at that stage?
With Saracens facing a daunting away trip to Racing in the next round, they’ll know that this game is their best chance to dispose of a rival for top spot.
Expect them to put all their eggs in this basket.
Prediction: Saracens 20-13 Munster
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode 14 Chris Ashton 13 Joel Tomkins 12 Brad Barritt 11 David Strettle 10 Owen Farrell 9 Richard Wigglesworth 1 Rhys Gill 2 Schalk Brits 3 Matt Stevens 4 Steve Borthwick (captain) 5 Mouritz Botha 6 George Kruis 7 Will Fraser 8 Kelly Brown.
Replacements: 16 John Smit 17 Mako Vunipola 18 Petrus du Plessis 19 Eoin Sheriff 20 Ernst Joubert 21 Neil de Kock 22 Charlie Hodgson 23 Chris Wyles.
Munster: 15 Felix Jones 14 Doug Howlett (captain) 13 Casey Laulala 12 James Downey 11 Simon Zebo 10 Ronan O'Gara 9 Conor Murray 1 Dave Kilcoyne 2 Mike Sherry 3 BJ Botha 4 Donncha O'Callaghan 5 Donnacha Ryan 6 Dave O'Callaghan 7 Peter O'Mahony 8 James Coughlan.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley 17 Wian du Preez 18 Stephen Archer 19 Billy Holland 20 Paddy Butler 21 Duncan Williams 22 Ian Keatley 23 Luke O'Dea.