Saracens bid to reach third Champions Cup final in four years and other talking points ahead of Munster clash

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Saracens face Munster in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup on Saturday.

Mark McCall’s side are the form team this year and look destined to reach a third final in four seasons.

Here, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the match.

Saracens Europe’s best?

The North London side will contest their seventh semi-final this weekend and, coupled with Leinster’s mixed form, are well on course to replicate their victories in 2016 and 2017.

Led by Owen Farrell, Sarries have the ultimate competitor who is always hungry for success. Like him or loathe him, the England captain is a magical player who is often the tipping point between winning and losing.

His kicking from hand is exceptional and can expose the opposition’s positioning with his clever kicks, vision and solid distribution.

But even without the presence of their inspirational star, there is class all around the park in Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Brad Barritt.

Barritt, in particular, looks to have rediscovered his old form this season and is more than capable of steering the ship if Farrell is injured or off-colour.

With the Premiership also in their sights, it looks set to be another thrilling end to the season for McCall and his impressive side.

All eyes on Vunipola

The English star was booed during last week’s defeat to Bristol after showing support for Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for his controversial posts on social media.

For any player, it’s not nice entering a marquee fixture under a cloud of smoke due to the negative impact it could have on their individual performance.

McCall had to field questions all week about Vunipola’s actions and it’s an unwanted distraction leading into a European semi-final. In the build-up to such a crucial clash, you want to be talking rugby and the occasion itself rather than the negative outside music.

Vunipola won’t be thanked by his team-mates or management, but these players are professionals and should be used to playing in high-intensity games without letting distractions affect them.

Vunipola’s beliefs and what it has attracted is unlikely to have an affect on the result itself, but it’s an unwanted interruption.

Munster’s best approach?

The more you look at Saracens, the less weaknesses you find. They are the form team in Europe and will be hard to stop. For Munster, they need to build on comfortable recent wins against Edinburgh, Cardiff and Benetton if they want to reach a first final since 2008

Johann van Graan’s side have improved hugely since their 26-10 defeat to Saracens in the semi-finals two years ago, a fixture in which they fell apart late on after enjoying the bulk of possession and territory in the first-half.

This time around, Munster need to get the blend right with their creativity and ask more questions of a stellar Saracens side.

With an experienced half-back partnership in Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal, the Red Army need to execute the kicking game to put their opponents on the back foot and spread the ball wide to gain valuable yards.

Sometimes it feels like a minor miracle when talisman Keith Earls gets the ball out wide, but Munster need to ship possession to their back three at every opportunity in a bid to test Sarries in the wide channels.

In the scrum there is buckets of quality with prop David Kilcoyne having the season of his career. And if they can perform well in the line-out, contest the breakdown and slow the ball down, they should be in with a chance.

It may be a step too far, but Munster are developing well and in a real sweet spot to push them to the brink.

Chance for Bleyendaal to shine?

With Joey Carbery sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Bleyendaal has a chance to make his mark in Munster’s biggest fixture of the season.

Bleyendaal’s injury profile at Munster has been well documented, with two neck surgeries ruling him out for nearly two seasons and curtailing a career that looked certain to scale greater heights. Since joining from Saracens in 2015, he has only made 52 appearances for the province.

But, looking back to sparkling form after a superb cameo against Edinburgh last month, the 28-year-old Kiwi will take centre stage against the purring Farrell in Coventry.

It’s hard to quantify the overall impact of Bleyendaal, such is his stop-start tenure in Limerick so far, but his kicking game is strong and he plays almost like a ninth forward with his granite-like defence, solid passing and general game management.

If the former Crusaders man can get on top and provide his backs with the right ball then Saracens will struggle.

Edinburgh Rugby v Munster Rugby - Heineken Champions Cup Quarter-Final

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Rugby Australia pushing ahead with plans to terminate Israel Folau's contract

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Rugby Australia is pressing ahead with plans to terminate Israel Folau’s contract after the Wallabies full-back was served with a breach notice over his controversial social media posts.

Folau has been deemed by the union’s integrity unit to have committed a “high-level breach of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct”, warranting the termination of his employment contract.

A year ago Folau, a staunch Christian, was warned for making controversial comments on social media but escaped disciplinary action.

Having published similarly divisive views once again, however, RA announced its intention to sack one of the sport’s most gifted players in a move that would rule him out of the World Cup.

And RA chief executive Raelene Castle declared on Monday morning that Folau is in breach of contract.

Castle said: “Following the events of last year, Israel was warned formally and repeatedly about the expectations of him as a player for the Wallabies and NSW Waratahs with regards to social media use and he has failed to meet those obligations.

“It was made clear to him that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action.

“All professional rugby players in Australia are bound by the code of conduct and there is a process in place for any disciplinary matter.”

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Jonny Wilkinson backs 'ruthless' Owen Farrell to give England 'leadership quality'

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Former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson believes “ruthless” Owen Farrell has the “leadership quality” that England need in World Cup year.

Second-half performances against Wales and Scotland, in which half-time leads were surrendered in both games, cost England the Six Nations title this year.

Head coach Eddie Jones spoke about the mental fragility of his side after they shipped 38 unanswered points to Scotland last month and the common denominator to the two halves that cost England dearly was that captain Farrell played poorly in both.

Jones’ decision to take off Farrell with 10 minutes to go against Scotland felt significant in a World Cup year.

But Wilkinson, who famously kicked the extra-time drop goal to win England the World Cup in 2003, supports the current England fly-half.

“He has a leadership quality, he has a real conviction about how he sees the game, he has openness outside of the game to learn but when he’s on the field he’s pretty ruthless,” said Wilkinson, speaking at an event where he and former France scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili were taking part in snow rugby in La Plagne.

“That’s kind of what guys look for – a guy that listens – but, when it comes to decision-making time, he makes the decision and there’s no grey about it, ‘this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to do it’.”

England captain Owen Farrell (left) in action during the Six Nations defeat away to Wales (David Davies/PA Images).England’s shortcomings against Wales in the second half in Cardiff, where they squandered a 10-3 lead to lose 21-13, opened the door for Warren Gatland’s team to win the Six Nations and complete the Grand Slam.

Wilkinson sees parallels between the current Wales side and his World Cup-winning England of 2003. But with the World Cup in Japan just five months away, he insists Wales cannot afford to think the hard work is done.

“You look at this Wales team and our England team in 2003 and you know they’ve won how many games on the trot now and they’ve won a grand slam in World Cup year, which means they’ve gone unbeaten for what has to be a year and now they’re heading in to the World Cup. You’re kind of like there is a parallel,” he said.

“For me it’s important that they did it but it’s only as important as they make it. The problem is that you feel like you’ve somehow deep down, you’ve somehow done a lot of the work already – none of the work’s been done.

“If you carry on willing to do the work then what’s happened before matters, if you stop and rest on what’s happened then what’s happened suddenly falls away very, very quickly.”

Ireland had high hopes heading into the Six Nations but defeats to England and Wales saw them finish third. However, Wilkinson has warned against writing off the Irish at the World Cup.

“Ireland are dangerous as ever and we’ve seen that. One season or one group of games doesn’t change anything,” said Wilkinson, who trained a couple of times with England at Jones’ request during the Six Nations as well as working as a kicking consultant for them.

“What it does do is put Ireland back in that bracket of backs against the wall – everyone’s doubting you a little bit now and that’s the worst Irish team you ever want to play against.

“What they need to do is find a way to make sure it comes out at the right moments. They’re certainly not off the charts that’s for sure.”

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