Weekend preview: Sarries will be out to avenge a few close calls
Dispute and disagreement are in the DNA of the Heineken Cup – entirely predictably, the warring factions currently thrashing out the long-term future of the tournament at a series of boardroom meetings have rejected each other's solutions out of hand – so few aficionados of European club rugby will faint with shock if Saracens manage to fall out with Munster at Thomond Park this evening. Such is the rivalry, fun and games are all but guaranteed.
Munster are not quite what they were when the "three O'Mightys" – Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell – were in their pomp, but they know what it is to beat Saracens at this exalted level of rugby, if only just. The teams have met three times and the men from Limerick have prevailed on each occasion: twice by a single point and once by a doubling of that rather narrow margin.
The peripatetic Londoners remember each of those defeats: particularly the last, in April 2008, when their chances of making a first final evaporated at the back end of a magnificent last-four tie at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. With Richard Hill, the World Cup-winning England flanker, playing a blinder on one elderly leg, they might have had a penalty shot to win it at the death. Instead, a tackle-ball decision went against them – harshly, in the view of everyone with a functioning pair of eyes – and they went down 18-16. Munster went on to claim a second title.
If the Irish province look a little underbaked these days, despite a classy back division boasting such rich attacking talents as Felix Jones, Doug Howlett and Keith Earls, the visitors are quite the opposite. Hard-bitten in the extreme, they have stacked their back line with players fresh from England's startling triumph over the All Blacks last weekend – Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton (below) and Alex Goode all start – and are so handy up front they have yet to lose a line-out in this tournament.
Harlequins, the other obvious English contenders for European glory, should have little difficulty in nailing a third successive pool victory: their opponents today are the new Italian franchise Zebre, who will need more than home advantage in Parma to keep pace with the Premiership champions.
Leicester, meanwhile, must do a proper job on a second, infinitely more battle-scarred Azzurri outfit in Treviso, who gave Toulouse a nasty scare in the last round. Mathew Tait, that long-lost talent of the red-rose game, starts tomorrow's contest at Welford Road in the full-back position – Geordan Murphy, the Tigers' preferred No 15 for ever and a day, is on the bench – and if the man who threatened to win the 2007 World Cup for England is in anything like decent nick, it will be a treat to watch him operate.
Sale, adrift at the foot of the Premiership and deeply troubled, will really upset the applecart if they find a way past the 15-man bank account known as Toulon in Salford this afternoon, but as the title contenders are travelling in Full Metal Jacket mode – the principal decision-making positions will be filled by Frédéric Michalak and Matt Giteau, standing either side of one Jonny Wilkinson – only an incurable optimist will foresee a home victory.
Exeter have already lost twice: narrowly to the holders Leinster and horribly to the pre-tournament favourites Clermont Auvergne. With all due respect to the Devonians and their meeting with Scarlets in Llanelli today, tomorrow's rumble between their two conquerors has just a little more riding on it.
Rowntree and Farrell in line for Lions share
England players who make the cut for next summer's British and Irish Lions tour of Australia are likely to be joined by two familiar faces in Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, 50 per cent of the red-rose coaching team. Rowntree, who prepared the Lions forwards in South Africa in 2009, and Farrell, still in his first year as an international coach, are expected to be confirmed as aides to the head man Warren Gatland on Wednesday. One of Gatland's colleagues in the Wales set-up, the attack specialist Rob Howley, is also being strongly tipped for a place on the back-room staff. There would appear to be no place, though, at this stage for the Wales defence specialist Shaun Edwards.
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