Munster welcome Pool One table toppers, Saracens to Thomond Park this evening in the first of their back-to-back meetings. Munster are already on the back foot in the pool having lost away to Racing Metro. Saracens have won two from two but will be fully aware that this will be their sternest test to date.
The teams have met three times in the Heineken Cup already with Munster coming out on top on each occasion. Amazingly though, the biggest winning margin that the Irish province have had over their English rivals was a mere two points back in the 2008 semifinal. On that particular day, it was a try from Alan Quinlan that sealed Munster's passage to the final which they went on to win. The other two meeting came in the Pool stages back in 2000 when Munster came out on top in both games by a single point. In the game at Thomond Park, Ronan O'Gara converted a late Keith Wood try in injury time to keep Munster's unbeaten home record alive.
Munster's home form hasn't been as indomitable as it once was but Thomond Park remains something of a fortress. Munster were dealt a couple of crucial injury blows in the last week, particularly in the back row. Tommy O'Donnell who has been in fine form of late misses out while new signing CJ Stander isn't considered due to a broken bone in his hand. The South African had a very impressive home debut last week in scoring two brilliantly worked tries. With both Niall Ronan and Sean Dougall still injured, Dave O'Callaghan starts at blindside in what will be his first Heineken Cup start. Peter O'Mahony switches to open side to accommodate O'Callaghan.
Munster in fact have made seven changes to the team that secured the bonus point in their last Heineken Cup game against Edinburgh. In come Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara and James Coughlan, who have all recovered from injury. Munster come into the game on the back of a comfortable 31-3 victory against Glasgow in the Rabo last Saturday. With Paul O'Connell still out injured for the foreseeable future, it will be vitally important for the likes of Donnacha Ryan and James Coughlan to get go forward ball in the Munster pack. If the Sarries forwards get on the front foot early on, it could be a tough evening for the home side.
Saracens will arrive in Limerick without fear. Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Owen Farrell - all involved in England's unbelievable victory over the All Blacks - will be buoyant upon their return to club rugby. Saracens are an extremely physical outfit with plenty of bruising ball carriers. John Smit, a World Cup winning captain, only makes the bench. Saracens have serious depth.
In Charlie Hodgson at out half, they have a rejuvenated playmaker who seems be playing with a renewed lease of life. Hodgson is the tournament's top scorer after the opening two rounds with 40 points. He kicked 23 points last week when his side beat Gloucester in a thrilling encounter at Vicarage Road. Hodgson won't be phased by the Thomond Park crowd. With the big ball carrier, Brad Barritt outside him, coupled with the guile of Farrell, Ashton and Goode, this Saracens back line carry a major threat. Ashton in particular will be hoping for a better time in Limerick than the last time he visited with Northampton, when his yellow boots were the only thing that made him stand out.
Roman Poite who was due to officiate the game pulled out due to injury, much to the relief of the Munster fans. The French referee hasn't exactly endeared himself to the Limerick crowd. Another French ref, Pascal Gauzère will now take charge of the game.
It's all set up for yet another titanic clash between two heavyweights of the competition. Munster will realistically need two wins from their back to back games with Saracens. The English side will know that a victory today would put them one step closer to claiming top stop whilst almost doing away with Munster's chances of progressing in the process.
Prediction: Munster to edge it with Saracens claiming a losing bonus point.
The teams line out as follows:
Munster: Felix Jones, Doug Howlett (c), Keith Earls, James Downey, Simon Zebo, Ronan O'Gara, Conor Murray, David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Dave O'Callaghan, Peter O'Mahony,James Coughlan,
Replacements: Damien Varley, Wian du Preez, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Paddy Butler, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Casey Laulala.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Owen Farrell, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, Rhys Gill, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick (c), Mouritz Botha, Kelly Brown, Will Fraser, Ernst Joubert
Replacements: John Smit, Mako Vunipola, Petrus du Plessis, George Kruis, Andy Saull, Richard Wigglesworth, Joel Tomkins, Vhris Wyles.
Kick off is at 18:00 pm and the game is live on Sky Sports.