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No club has come to represent Munster’s European glass ceiling more than Saracens. The reigning champions knocked Munster out in the penultimate pool round five seasons ago at Allianz Park before beating them in the semi-finals three seasons ago at the Aviva Stadium and again at the Ricoh Arena last April.
They were emphatic wins too, by scorelines of 33-10, 25-10 and 32-16. Yet, ironically, no organisation inspired Saracens to develop their culture and winning mentality more than Munster.
Nigel Wray, Saracens’ long-standing benefactor and chairman since becoming involved with the club in 1995, initially pursued a policy of signing high profile and proven international stars such as Francois Pienaar, Philippe Sella and Michael Lynagh but admitted to being blown away by the fervour of a largely indigenous Munster and home crowd at Thomond Park when beaten there by 31-30 in January 2000.
Munster had great continuity in their people, in their playing staff and general staff. They brought through their own players, they were consistent, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, and we wanted to be a bit like that, and hopefully over the 10-year period we’ve got close to that.
Unwelcome at other Premiership grounds since their 35-point deduction and near €6.3 million fine for breaches of the salary cap, it remains to be seen whether Wray attends Thomond Park today.
Relations between the two became a little frosty when the somewhat confrontational if hugely influential Edward Griffiths was the Saracens chief executive and there was a decidedly uncivil atmosphere at last season’s semi-final in Coventry following Billy Vunipola’s support for Israel Folau.
The pariahs of the Premiership, cornered and even more disliked than ever, true to type, Saracens will probably only revel in their current predicament. Mark McCall was brought on board by Venter as his assistant in 2009 before succeeding him as director of rugby midway through the 2010-11 season and he laughed when this reporter suggested they thrive in their Millwall-esque “no-one likes us but we don’t care” tight-knit mentality.
“When that new phase of Saracens began in 2009 we wanted to be the opposite of what they’d been before,” says McCall. “We actually wanted, as it happened, to be more like Munster to be honest. They were the club which had all the characteristics that you wanted to have.
“They had great continuity in their people, in their playing staff and general staff. They brought through their own players, they were consistent, week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, and we wanted to be a bit like that, and hopefully over the 10-year period we’ve got close to that.
“We’ve had a lot of continuity in the people. A lot of the players have been here for over seven years. Most of the staff have been too. I think that’s the most important thing in what we’re fighting really, because we’ve been through quite a lot together as it is and this is just a tremendous challenge that we’ve got now.”
Venter swiftly culled 18 players on becoming head coach during the 2009-10 season, in what came to be known among fans as “the night of the long knives”. The ensuing influx of South African backers and South African players led to them being known as “Saffracens”.
“Obviously it’s been well documented with what happened in 2009 with (the arrival of) Brendan (Venter) and Edward and the changes that were made then,” says McCall. “I suppose starting it and continuing it are two different things and I think the key thing has just been to keep people around for as long as you can a
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