Downey wary of Saracens threat

James Downey has no doubt about the size of Munster’s challenge when Heineken Cup rivals Saracens attempt to storm their Thomond Park fortress tomorrow.

Saracens will arrive in Limerick as Pool One leaders, three points clear of Munster.

And they are bolstered by returning England quartet Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, who were all stars of last Saturday’s stunning Twickenham victory over world champions New Zealand.

“You can look at the footage on Saracens and prepare yourself, but it comes down to how we play and we just need to look after that side of things,” Munster’s former Northampton centre Downey said.

“They have a strong back-three, and they are pretty strong all over, really, to be fair to them.

“They’ve a good pack and they are well-drilled and know what they are doing. I’ve played against them many times.

“I suppose with a couple of new signings they have expanded their game a little bit. They are a quality side, and they have some internationals coming back this week with a good buzz after beating the All Blacks, so we will have to watch them carefully.”

An anticipated fly-half battle between former England 10s Danny Cipriani and Jonny Wilkinson might not materialise at Salford City Stadium tomorrow.

While Toulon star Wilkinson starts the Pool Six encounter, Cipriani is on the Sale Sharks bench, with Rob Miller preferred as the English club’s starting playmaker.

Wilkinson apart, the Toulon side also includes star names such as Matt Giteau, former Sale and England prop Andrew Sheridan, South African lock Bakkies Botha and Argentina’s Test skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

In Pool Three tomorrow, group leaders Harlequins should face few problems against minnows Zebre in Italy, especially with their line-up enhanced by returning England men Mike Brown and Danny Care.

Exeter, meanwhile, saw their hopes of progressing from Pool Five rocked by successive defeats against Leinster and Clermont Auvergne, but a win against the Scarlets in west Wales tomorrow would keep them afloat.

The Chiefs have won their last five games in all competitions, and fly-half Gareth Steenson said: “We are just looking to continue the momentum of the last few weeks.

“If we want to progress in any way, we know we realistically have to go there and get a result. That said, we are not going to put too much pressure on ourselves.

“Sometimes, you have to remember it is still only our third Heineken Cup game as a club, so it’s another learning experience for us and another chance to play another top team.

And Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter added: “I think what we’ve learnt as a side in Europe is that if you play with intensity, you play together and you follow a game-plan, we are a good side and can be very competitive against some of the best sides in Europe.

“At the same time, though, what we have also learnt is that if you slip off that intensity you will get hurt very quickly.”

The Scarlets, who lost their opening two European fixtures, will be captained by Wales centre Jonathan Davies, with his fellow internationals Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland and Aaron Shingler also returning from autumn Test duty.

Wales wing George North, though, remains sidelined by a hip injury that forced him out of recent appointments with New Zealand and Australia.

An injury-hit Ospreys team face a daunting task away against Pool Two leaders Toulouse tomorrow. Their list of absentees includes Wales international forwards Adam Jones, Aaron Jarvis, Richard Hibbard, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Evans and Jonathan Thomas.

“To go and take on someone like Toulouse at their ground is one of the toughest asks in European rugby, particularly when we have such a long injury list,” Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys said.

“We realise that we are going into the game as underdogs, but that is a good place for us to be.”

Sunday’s Heineken action sees Leinster and Clermont go head-to-head in France, while Leicester host Treviso in Pool Two and Cardiff Blues will target a first win of their Heineken campaign when Montpellier visit the Arms Park.

The Blues will be without injured Wales internationals Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Bradley Davies, who were all injured during the recent autumn Test series.

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