Munster vs Saracens, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 15:15
There will be eight British and Irish Lions representatives on display in front of a full house at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium this weekend as Munster take on Saracens in the European Champions Cup semi-final, but one of those players will not be Conor Murray after the Ireland scrum-half was ruled out of injury.
His absence is a concerning one not just for Munster as they look to destabilise the Saracens juggernaut that has shown signs of repeating last year’s Premiership and European Cup double, but also for Lions head coach Warren Gatland. After announcing his 41-man squad on Wednesday, Gatland made it perfectly clear that he will not risk taking Murray if he fails to play another game this season.
Should Munster suffer defeat by Sarries, then Murray – who is struggling with a nerve injury in his shoulder suffered during the loss to Wales in the Six Nations – will have just two Pro12 matches plus up to two play-off games to prove his fitness to Gatland, or else risk being replaced in the squad.
Munster will be able to call on two of their Lions players though in back-row forwards Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, both of whom starred at the Aviva Stadium last month when Ireland ended England’s Six Nations Grand Slam dream with a 13-9 victory in the final game of the championship.
For O’Mahony, the match represented the moment he forced himself into Gatland’s thoughts after dominating the English lineout, and with Leinster beating Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-finals at the same stadium, the Irish will feel they hold a 2-0 advantage heading into the match against Saracens.
However, Sarries boast six Lions themselves and have looked in formidable form of late, backing up the crushing wins over Bath and Glasgow Warriors with victory last weekend against Northampton Saints despite resting a number of key players.
Mark McCall makes eight changes to his side with the director of rugby pairing Maro Itoje and George Kruis at lock for the first time this year after the latter suffered cheek and knee injuries during an injury-blighted campaign, while Michael Rhodes, Maho Vunipola and his brother Billy also come into the pack, Jackson Wray switching from No 8 to openside flanker to accommodate the England back-row.
In the back line, Owen Farrell returns along with scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth to continue their half-back partnership, with captain Brad Barritt returning at centre and Chris Ashton restored on the wing.
Munster Rugby: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland, Peter O'Mahony (c), Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O'Callaghan, Jean Deysel, Ian Keatley, Francis Saili, Darren Sweetnam
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (c), Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Titi Lamositele, Petrus du Plessis, Jim Hamilton, Schalk Burger, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Chris Wyles
Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster, Stadium de Gerland, Sunday 16:00
While the second of this weekend’s semi-finals can’t match the 50,000 planned attendance in Dublin, the Stade de Gerland in Lyon will still boast a sold-out 40,000 crowd as the leaders of the Pro12 take on the Top 14’s second-placed side.
Former Saracens wing David Strettle is restored to the starting line-up after missing the quarter-final victory over Toulon, with fellow England exile Nick Abendanon on the other wing. The French side boast a phenomenally experienced international line-up, with Scott Spedding, Remi Lamerat and Camille Lopez all staring in the back line after impressing with France in the Six Nations.
In the pack, Clermont are able to boast a further two Les Bleus representatives in Sebastian Vahaamahina and Damien Chouly, who leads the side from blindside flanker.
All Irish eyes will be on the Leinster fly-half, Jonathan Sexton, as he looks to prove once again why he is the favourite to take the Lions No 10 shirt this summer in New Zealand, but the Irish province are without key players in Ireland internationals Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
O’Brien comes as the biggest blow to the Leinster head coach, Leo Cullen, who revealed that the Lions-selected flanker has “tightness in his hamstring”, while Heaslip still hasn’t recovered from the operation on the damaged disc in his lower back that he suffered in the warm-up of the Irish win over England.
Kearney has also not played since the Six Nations, with both missing out on Lions selection. That doesn’t mean that Leinster are short on players heading to face the All Blacks though, with Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong all starting, while wing Isa Nacewa captains the side on his 50th European start.
ASM Clermont Auvergne: Scott Spedding; David Strettle, Aurélien Rougerie, Remi Lamerat, Nick Abendanon; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Raphael Chaume, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Arthur Iturria, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Damien Chouly (c), Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee
Replacements: John Ulugia, Etienne Falgoux, Aaron Jarvis, Paul Jedrasiak, Alexandre Lapandry, Ludovic Radosavljevic , Pato Fernandez, Damien Penaud
Leinster Rugby: Joey Carbery; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (c); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Zane Kirchner