By Brendan Cole
Munster’s move back towards their traditional style must be judged at least a partial success at this stage with an earthy win over domestic rivals Leinster and another splendid victory on foreign soil at Sale already in the ledger the right side of Christmas.
They have, in the big tests at least, gotten more right than they have gotten wrong.
But even on home soil, this clash with Saracens (kick-off 7.45pm) represents a step up in grade even in comparison to their victory over Leinster. And as they continue to reconnect with their roots it is worth remembering that even at the height of their powers in Europe, Munster were still sometimes vulnerable to simply being outclassed.
That will be a particular worry against Clermont, who even in defeat against Saracens looked capable of playing rugby from another planet at times last week.
At Thomond Park against a Saracens team that lacks the sheer power of Clermont that is less of a concern.
Saracens will bring a host of other problems with them, however, starting with a spiky attitude that is well suited to feeding off the atmosphere in Limerick rather than being cowed by it. This is a club used to being disliked everywhere they go.
Saracens will also bring a highly effective backline with a trio of excellent game managers in Neil De Kock, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell, a power runner in Marcelo Bosch and genuinely speedy outside backs in Chris Ashton, Dave Strettle and Alex Goode.
Barritt is also no slouch can be a significant running threat, and given Munster’s issues making first-up tackles against Sale the balance of qualities in the Saracens backline is the major area of concern.
But is in the forwards that Munster will fancy their chances of laying down a game-winning platform.
It is rare enough these days to see a club side capable of tapping into the elemental side of rugby but Munster managed to create purple patches against Leinster and Sale by doing just that.
As was traditionally the case, the back-row is to the fore in setting out the stall.
Munster have successfully turned CJ Stander into a high-quality wrecking ball while Tommy O’Donnell is close enough to David Wallace in his ability to power his way to extra yards through the tackle.
Peter O’Mahony brings ferocity to the carry too but really comes to the fore in ruck and fringe battle with or without the ball, an area where Paul O’Connell is also still among the best.
Munster also have a genuine match-influencer at scrum-half and it is that middle five from O’Connell to Conor Murray that will determine their fate in this match and ultimately this competition.
The return to the old ways may come up short at some point in the future, and Munster proclivity for the spells of aimlessness is a worry, but at this point in the season Anthony Foley’s men look capable of wilting what will be a spirited Saracens challenge.
Prediction: Munster 25-16 Saracens
Munster: Jones, Conway, Smith, Hurley, Zebo, Keatley, Murray; Cronin, Casey, Botha, Foley, O'Connell, O'Mahony (capt), O'Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Guinazu, Kilcoyne, Archer, Holland, Copeland, Williams, Hanrahan, Van den Heever.
Saracens: Goode, Ashton, Bosch, Brad Barritt (capt), Strettle, Farrell, De Kock; Barrington, George, Du Plessis, Kruis, Hamilton, Brown, Fraser, Vunipola.
Replacements: Spurling, Gill, Johnston, Botha, Wray, Wigglesworth, Hodgson, Taylor.