Van Graan working on plan to join Euro elite

Munster vs Castres Munster Head Coach Johann van Graan arrives. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

There is only so much credit you can give the winning team before turning the page and focusing on becoming the better team yourself.

Having duly doffed their caps to Saracens following a comprehensive European semi-final defeat, Munster will return to training today committed to making sure such tributes become a thing of the past.

So in the wake of last Saturday’s 32-16 Heineken Champions Cup semi-final loss in Coventry and ahead of a Guinness PRO14 play-off series that could quite possibly see Johann van Graan’s side faced with a repeat trip to Dublin to face Leinster in the last four of the league campaign, just how exactly are Munster going to bridge the gap between perennial knockout qualifiers and genuine title contenders?

Speaking yesterday as the southern province began to switch their attention back to the visit of Connacht for the final PRO14 league game before that play-off series, head coach van Graan acknowledged his squad’s current position in the European rugby order and the reality that next month’s Champions Cup finalists Leinster, who systematically dispatched Toulouse in the other semi on Sunday, and Saracens have clearly set the benchmark to which the rest must try to match.

The South African pointed to Saracens’ 56-27 home quarter-final demolition of Glasgow Warriors, a team Munster trail by three points in PRO14 Conference A, and their unbeaten run to the European final.

“It’s very difficult to argue against it,” van Graan said, “they’re definitely the two teams everybody has to catch.

It’s two fantastic teams. From Leinster’s point of view, fair play to them, they’re the champions and they’ve got back into the final. The fact the semi-final was in the Aviva Stadium obviously helps a lot, the fact a semi can be in Dublin but they played very well.

"Toulouse is a fantastic attacking team and they managed to score zero tries against Leinster. So that’s why you need an all-around game. It’s not only about your attack, it’s not only about your defence. Leinster played very well yesterday and to beat Toulouse by 18 points, they’re the top in France.

“Saracens, they’re quality, they’ve been champions in 2016 and 2017, lost to Leinster last season, so I think it’s fair to say the two best teams in Europe over the last three seasons are playing in the final and good luck to both teams. They’re teams we certainly respect. We managed to beat Leinster on December 29 and didn’t manage to beat Saracens but they’re both fantastic teams.”

Munster remain some way off “fantastic” but van Graan has a very solid base on which to build and the Munster Rugby hierarchy have given him plenty of time to succeed, last week announcing a two-year extension to his first stint as a professional head coach having recruited him from the Springboks’ coaching staff in November 2017.

They clearly believe he is the man to bring silverware home for the first time since 2011 and with their head coach in post until at least 2022, the stability that brings to an organisation has clearly helped to convince the likes of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery to sign contract extensions of their own this season.

Such buy-in from the existing squad, augmented this season by fly-half Carbery, full-back Haley and lock Tadhg Beirne, has convinced van Graan he has the personnel to develop the side into trophy winners.

Clearly any head coach would like the sort of financial backing Mark McCall enjoys at Saracens to assemble a world-class quad but that is not the reality in Munster and though Haley had a game to forget in Coventry as he struggled under the pressure of the Saracens kicking game, the provincial management believe they have an existing first XV and a solid bench that can be a match for anyone.

Now they just need them to stay fit. The addition of Test-proven backs Carbery at fly-half and Earls on the wing may well have added a cutting edge to go with the defensive, ball-retention and set-piece strengths that have been the bedrock of this season’s progress to the knockout stages of both competitions.

Van Graan yesterday referred to their absences at the weekend when asked which takeaways from the Saracens game had shown him the areas for improvement.

Obviously we need to improve as a squad. As a club, we were very happy that we got to a semi-final but it will never be good enough to lose a semi-final. So we’ve got to improve our plan.

“In big games you need your quality players fit. I’ve got 100 per cent confidence in the guys that we put on the field and (fly-halves) Tyler (Bleyendaal) and JJ (Hanrahan) gave it all they got as did Sweets (wing Darren Sweetnam), who scored that try. Did we miss Joey and Earlsy? We most definitely did. They are some of our best players and you need your best players fit in a game like this.

“Then you’ve got to be able to handle pressure. That’s what world-class teams do, they put you under pressure at important times of the game and I thought that minute before half-time, they kicked that penalty after Conor (Murray’s) kick had got us back even at nine-all.

“To concede that penalty just before half-time, it’s similar to what we did to Gloucester earlier in the season. We had a scrum when the clock went into the red, we kept it for 31 phases and we scored a try going up 20-3.

“Then the few minutes just after half-time, if you look at Saracens’ scoring profile that’s where they score the most amount of points and we knew it was coming, we just couldn’t stop it.”

That is quite a “to do” list and some of it will have to be enacted quickly because if Munster fail to reel in Glasgow this Saturday and miss out on a home semi-final, a home quarter-final victory — in itself no given — will mean they can expect to be asked similar questions by Leinster at the RDS to the ones they were unable to answer against Saracens.

GAA podcast: Glen deliver, pacy Barrs, Bandon's history boys and the psychology of developing elite players.


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