Munster vs Saracens, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 15:15
There will be eight British and Irish Lions representatives on display in front of a full house at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium this weekend as Munster take on Saracens in the European Champions Cup semi-final, but one of those players will not be Conor Murray after the Ireland scrum-half was ruled out of injury.
His absence is a concerning one not just for Munster as they look to destabilise the Saracens juggernaut that has shown signs of repeating last year’s Premiership and European Cup double, but also for Lions head coach Warren Gatland. After announcing his 41-man squad on Wednesday, Gatland made it perfectly clear that he will not risk taking Murray if he fails to play another game this season.
Should Munster suffer defeat by Sarries, then Murray – who is struggling with a nerve injury in his shoulder suffered during the loss to Wales in the Six Nations – will have just two Pro12 matches plus up to two play-off games to prove his fitness to Gatland, or else risk being replaced in the squad.
Munster will be able to call on two of their Lions players though in back-row forwards Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, both of whom starred at the Aviva Stadium last month when Ireland ended England’s Six Nations Grand Slam dream with a 13-9 victory in the final game of the championship.
For O’Mahony, the match represented the moment he forced himself into Gatland’s thoughts after dominating the English lineout, and with Leinster beating Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-finals at the same stadium, the Irish will feel they hold a 2-0 advantage heading into the match against Saracens.
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
1/6 Alun Wyn Jones
Jones is probably still the leading candidate for the captaincy, even if his, and Wales’, Six Nations was not what they were hoping for. Jones took the Welsh armband from Sam Warburton for the championship but at times looked uneasy at making a call, such as when he was overruled when Wales opted to go for the corner against Scotland, rather than taking the shot at three points. Jones captained the Lions in the deciding third Test against Australia in 2013 and is a guaranteed starter if fit – something Gatland is keen for his captain to be, although not a necessity.
2/6 Sam Warburton
Had Wales not finished fifth in the championship with three defeats, there is a good chance Warburton would have been named player of the tournament. The way he reacted to losing the Wales captaincy and moving to blindside flanker has been phenomenal and he is now the bookies’ favourite after his performances and having already led the Lions to a tour victory. Of Warburton’s chances, Gatland said: “He's a different captain to some other players. He leads by example. He doesn't say a lot but he has had that experience. He's one of the guys potentially in contention, definitely.” However, he has been so good without the burden of the armband, would giving it to him hinder his performances?
3/6 Dylan Hartley
Before his red card for Northampton in December, Hartley was the frontrunner for the armband but now his place on the plane is not even assured. For England, Jamie George has impressed and could usurp his captain’s position over the next 12 months, with Hartley arguably not even the third most impressive Hooker the home nations boasted during this year’s Six Nations. However, his grit and fire has been one of the reasons for England’s success under Eddie Jones and it is that sort of personality which could be vital in the hotbed of New Zealand.
4/6 Rory Best
The way Best led Ireland to ending England’s unbeaten run shows that he has the ability to motivate the players around him in tough and gritty situations. He has also captained a side to a win over the All Blacks, the only candidate who is able to say that. Best is certainly a viable candidate but the question mark that remains hanging over him is if he is good enough to start at hooker against the All Blacks? Hartley, Best, George and Wales’ Ken Owens are all in with a shout.
5/6 Owen Farrell
Farrell was player of the tournament after a stunning Six Nations. His kicking is up there with Leigh Halfpenny’s as amongst the best in the world and he has the right mentality of a captain having been schooled under Eddie Jones. Farrell looks certain to start at 12 for the Lions and would make a fierce captain. However, having not captained an international side from the start, how would he fare leading the most intense tour the Lions have embarked on? It is a tough challenge for the most weathered of captains, never mind a novice.
6/6 Conor Murray
An outside shout for captain but the way he controls the game from around the ruck shows his importance to the Lions. He, like Best, has experience of beating the All Blacks and of a winning Lions Tour (like everyone on this list, other than Hartley). He has captaincy experience but while he was a certain starter a month ago, the performances of Rhys Webb have given Gatland a real decision to make. He said he wants to pick his squad first and then his captain and that could go against Murray in the decision-making process if Webb is now considered ahead of him.
However, Sarries boast six Lions themselves and have looked in formidable form of late, backing up the crushing wins over Bath and Glasgow Warriors with victory last weekend against Northampton Saints despite resting a number of key players.
Mark McCall makes eight changes to his side with the director of rugby pairing Maro Itoje and George Kruis at lock for the first time this year after the latter suffered cheek and knee injuries during an injury-blighted campaign, while Michael Rhodes, Maho Vunipola and his brother Billy also come into the pack, Jackson Wray switching from No 8 to openside flanker to accommodate the England back-row.
In the back line, Owen Farrell returns along with scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth to continue their half-back partnership, with captain Brad Barritt returning at centre and Chris Ashton restored on the wing.
Munster Rugby: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland, Peter O'Mahony (c), Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O'Callaghan, Jean Deysel, Ian Keatley, Francis Saili, Darren Sweetnam
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (c), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Titi Lamositele, Petrus du Plessis, Jim Hamilton, Schalk Burger, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Chris Wyles
Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster, Stadium de Gerland, Sunday 16:00
While the second of this weekend’s semi-finals can’t match the 50,000 planned attendance in Dublin, the Stade de Gerland in Lyon will still boast a sold-out 40,000 crowd as the leaders of the Pro12 take on the Top 14’s second-placed side.
Former Saracens wing David Strettle is restored to the starting line-up after missing the quarter-final victory over Toulon, with fellow England exile Nick Abendanon on the other wing. The French side boast a phenomenally experienced international line-up, with Scott Spedding, Remi Lamerat and Camille Lopez all staring in the back line after impressing with France in the Six Nations.
In the pack, Clermont are able to boast a further two Les Bleus representatives in Sebastian Vahaamahina and Damien Chouly, who leads the side from blindside flanker.
All Irish eyes will be on the Leinster fly-half, Jonathan Sexton, as he looks to prove once again why he is the favourite to take the Lions No 10 shirt this summer in New Zealand, but the Irish province are without key players in Ireland internationals Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
O’Brien comes as the biggest blow to the Leinster head coach, Leo Cullen, who revealed that the Lions-selected flanker has “tightness in his hamstring”, while Heaslip still hasn’t recovered from the operation on the damaged disc in his lower back that he suffered in the warm-up of the Irish win over England.
Kearney has also not played since the Six Nations, with both missing out on Lions selection. That doesn’t mean that Leinster are short on players heading to face the All Blacks though, with Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong all starting, while wing Isa Nacewa captains the side on his 50th European start.
ASM Clermont Auvergne: Scott Spedding; David Strettle, Aurélien Rougerie, Remi Lamerat, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Raphael Chaume, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Damien Chouly (c), Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee
Replacements: John Ulugia, Etienne Falgoux, Aaron Jarvis, Paul Jedrasiak, Alexandre Lapandry, Ludovic Radosavljevic , Pato Fernandez, Damien Penaud
Leinster Rugby: Joey Carbery; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (c); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Zane KirchnerReuse content