Saracens vs Munster: Can Owen Farrell prove fitness in the Limerick furnace?

Outside-half returns after strained quad muscle for European Champions Cup match

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The Independent Online

Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, needs Owen Farrell to prove his fitness ahead of next month’s savagely testing international programme at Twickenham, but he might have preferred his senior outside-half to do it somewhere other than Thomond Park in Limerick – just about the least forgiving arena in the whole of club rugby.

Farrell will start for Saracens in Friday night’s European Champions Cup game against Munster, having spent just four minutes on the pitch in the last month because of a strained quad muscle, and as he is certain to attract more than his fair share of attention from the hosts, Lancaster may not give himself a clear view of proceedings. It is difficult for a coach to assess the fine detail of a player’s performance when his hands are covering his face.

Both sides recorded victories in last weekend’s opening round of cross-border fixtures: Munster won at Sale with the last kick of the game while Saracens saw off Clermont Auvergne in a high-quality match in north London.

As a consequence, Friday evening’s contest could hardly be more finely balanced. The Irish province, two-time champions in Europe, are deep in a rebuilding phase, but with the likes of Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony in their pack and the excellent Conor Murray at scrum-half, they are nobody’s pushovers. Saracens, meanwhile, have people keen to prove a point – not least the Scotland flanker and occasional captain Kelly Brown, dropped like a stone from the Test squad by the new national coach Vern Cotter, and his fellow back-rower Will Fraser, whose determined search for a first England cap continues to prove fruitless.

Stuart Lancaster will be waiting to see if Owen Farrell comes through his club test unscathed (Getty Images)

The fact that another of Saracens’ outstanding loose forwards, the No 8 Billy Vunipola, is fit to face the fire and fury of a night in Limerick has precious little to do with Julien Bardy, the Clermont Auvergne forward. Bardy drove his knee into Vunipola in the closing minutes of last weekend’s match, duly appeared before a disciplinary tribunal today and was banned for five weeks. He will not play again until December.

Brian Smith, the London Irish rugby director, has named something approaching a full-strength side for Friday night’s visit to Grenoble in the second-tier Challenge Cup. David Paice, the long-serving hooker expected to be added to the England squad when Lancaster makes his late call-ups on Sunday night, will start in the front row, while Blair Cowan and Kieran Low can make another pitch for Scotland duty next month with strong performances against awkward French opposition.

Next year’s World Cup has generated record levels of business, with almost one million tickets sold last month. Tournament staff reported that applications topped the five million mark, with the England-Australia pool match at Twickenham oversubscribed nearly eight-fold. Almost half the 48 matches have gone to a ticket ballot in every price category, with supporters being notified of the results of the draw tomorrow.

The signs are that corporate hospitality and sports travel package interest is also higher than ever before: the event is on course to attract more foreign supporters on official tours than the competition in France seven years ago. “The record level of demand for tickets is a terrific indicator of the interest and excitement surrounding the World Cup,” said Debbie Jevans, chief executive of the England Rugby 2015 delivery organisation. “The only downside of such strong demand is that there will inevitably be some disappointment when supporters are notified of the results of the ballots.”

Remaining tickets go on sale next month, with unsuccessful applicants given priority.