Johann van Graan: ‘Games like this are why we play’
Munster head coach knows they will need the Thomond Park energy in Exeter showdown
Munster’s head coach Johann van Graan knows what’s at stake in this weekend’s Champions Cup clash with Exeter Chiefs. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
In the aftermath of Exeter’s 34-12 bonus point win over a typically bad-tempered Castres to set up their Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2 decider against Munster at Thomond Park next Saturday, their head coach Rob Baxter spoke of the need to match Munster’s “emotional energy”.
Call it the X factor, but it has always been a factor.
On eight previous occasions Munster have hosted English teams on the final Saturday of the pool stages, and they have won seven of them – the Miracle Match et al. The exception was Leicester’s win at Thomond Park in January 2007, when Munster had already qualified.
Asked where this emotional energy emanated from, Johann van Graan almost became a little emotional himself in describing how it came from its streets and its history.
“I think it comes from deep within,” he said. “That was one of the things that was most evident to me when I came here the first time. You just have to drive around town, see boys in the street playing rugby and not football, and see the red flags.
“If you walk into Thomond Park, and I had said this so many times before, I don’t know what it is but you walk through that tunnel and see ‘Pride’ in front of your face, and you drive on the bus and you see people and what this team means to the people. I think it comes from that.
“I think it comes from ‘our’ history,” he said, before adding with a smile “and I am Irish now. And once you are a part of this club it is like you have always been here.
“Earlsy said to me in the early days, ‘once you have been here you will never want to leave’ and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, once you are a part of Munster you are always a part of Munster.
“Games like this are why we play this game. You might win or you might lose but one thing I can guarantee is the effort for the people of Munster is the most important thing. But you have to improve your game because you can’t always count on emotion.
“That’s why I would like to think we have improved our game. So we are going to use the emotion but we also have to play well to beat a quality team like Exeter. ”
“I think it’s important to state that we have a lot of quality options,” stressed van Graan.
“Yes it was the first time that we were able to pick those four but you must also be cautious as a coach, it’s not only about certain players, it’s about the squad,” he added, pointing to how Sam Arnold, Joco Taute and Keith Earls have played at ‘13’ this season.
“What Conor and Joey do give you is world class quality at ‘9’ and ‘10’, and Rory the fact that he’s left-footed and a very good decision maker, that he’s so calm, and he just always seems to take the right option.
“And then let’s call it, I don’t know how you’d say it in English, but the ‘bigness’ of Chris Farrell, the fact that he can carry, that he can off-load, he definitely worries defences in terms of how big he is. So yeah, it was nice to have that combination over the weekend.”
Many of Munster’s front-liners will be pitching up for the fourth game in a row, but van Graan had no concerns about fatigue.
“No, at all. There’s 47 guys who sat here this morning that all want to be picked for the weekend so I’ve got no issues about that. I think we have planned well over the last four or five months to make sure that we peak for these last two games in Europe, because after this, I said to the team this morning, the next time we see each other together as a group is at the end of March.”
That aforementioned quartet did have 10 minutes together in the second half against Connacht, which was particularly useful preparation for playing Gloucester away. Both play expansive rugby, and each has a box of tricks at outhalf in Jack Carty and Danny Cipriani.
Now, the Leinster game over Christmas looks especially relevant with Exeter in mind. Back at Thomond Park for what is likely to be another tense, momentous occasion – and Peter O’Mahony might again not feature – no two teams are more adept at patiently retaining possession in the opposition 22 than Leinster and Exeter.
“I can tell you, they are the best at that,” said van Graan of the Chiefs. “Statistically, they do keep the ball the best in Europe and they do keep it for the longest and you’ve got to respect that.
“So your discipline has got to be key and you’ve got to adapt to the referee and we’ve got the same referee we had the previous time against Exeter, Jerome Garces, one of the best referees in the world and both teams will have to adapt to him.
“In all the games that I’ve seen against Exeter, you get your opportunities and you’ve got to use them. I think we’ve used our opportunities in the last three weeks,” said van Graan, citing how Munster kept the ball for over 30 phases to score their second try in first-half overtime against Gloucester through Rory Scannell.
“But once they have the ball they’re pretty clinical and you’ve got to make sure that you keep disciplined and defend well. And once you have it you have to keep it as well. It sounds like it’s going to be a massive game.”
Sounds like it alright.