Johann van Graan in the deep end as Munster enter Tigers’ lair
New coach preparing side for a ‘different’ type of game to last Saturday’s victory
Munster head coach Johann van Graan: “We have got a long way to go. We have got a bit of confidence at this stage but every week is different.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Never mind not having a pre-season in which to bed in his methods and philosophy, this week Johann van Graan has been pitched in at the deep end. After a watching brief in the win away to Zebre, and then overseeing home wins over the Ospreys and Leicester, now comes an altogether more demanding assignment against a vengeful Tigers in their Welford Road lair on Sunday evening.
Last Saturday’s 38-10 victory was their fourth successive bonus-point win, but more than any other fixtures these back-to-back rounds in the Champions Cup demonstrate how volatile rugby can be.
“It’s a better position to be in from our side to have had a bonus-point win at home,” stresses Van Graan, before adding: “but I said a lot on my opinion on rugby games, [each game] has got different characteristics. It’s a new referee, new teams, new ground, new conditions, new ball.
“Once we got ahead by quite a few they had to chase the game and if it is three-all after 30 minutes, it’s a different game so a team that adapts the best to those kind of conditions are teams that tend to win and that is something we would like to improve on as a team. We have got a long way to go. We have got a bit of confidence at this stage but every week is different. It’s about going back to zero today and planning for a big game on Sunday.”
The history of this fixture is imposing. Munster have lost on their last two pre-Christmas visits to Welford Road, last year after winning the home leg 38-0, while Leicester have never lost both back-to-back fixtures. Aside from which Van Graan saw enough in last Saturday’s game to realise the Tigers can hurt Munster.
“They’ve got quality players all round the park. I thought Dan Cole put a lot of pressure on at the breakdown in terms of stealing. I thought their maul went very well. They found a few spaces within our defensive line, especially out wide, which we’ll have to have a look at.
“Their broken field, I thought they put us under quite a lot of pressure. The second play of the game went for three or four minutes. So they’ll back themselves at home but I can’t control them. We respect them a lot, playing at their home ground in a massive game for both teams.”
There is a ready acknowledgement within the Munster squad that they were beaten in the collisions, and were taken aback by Leicester’s physicality at the breakdown. Matt O’Connor having highlighted this, when accusing Munster of “killing the ball at every opportunity”, only heightens the focus on Mathieu Reynal, a good referee, in this key battleground on Sunday.
“I think it’s about consistency for us,” said Van Graan. “I think every team in the world does their research on referees. It’s about adapting to him. We had a good review on all areas of our games, pretty happy with the way our ball carriers fought on the ground and presented the ball, some good reaction speed by our cleaners. Some of the breakdown decision also went against us which might have been 50-50s. That’s all in the past. It’s about doing our research on the referee and the opposition and hopefully we can produce another good breakdown performance on Sunday.”
The performance of newly acquired openside Chris Kloete, a Duracel-bunny powered bundle of energy, added to Munster’s effectiveness at the breakdown last Saturday.
“I thought he has had a very good last three weeks,” ventured Van Graan. “He’s an out and out openside, he carries well. He is a real nuisance at the breakdown. It’s interesting over the past two weeks there was two big neck rolls on him and I thought he handled it quite well. I think the balance in the team is pretty good in terms of stealing.
“Our two centres put a lot of pressure on the opposition breakdown, I thought Peter O’Mahony had a fantastic game on the floor. Rhys Marshall in everything, and some of the carriers. I think we have a good balance across the board. Certain individuals have different strengths and it’s about utilising them.”
All that said and done, the 12-8 penalty count – which rather flies in the face of O’Connor’s post-match complaints – was “too high” for Van Graan’s liking.
“It’s been too high. We’ve got to get it down, we spoke about that as well. The interesting thing is we only had four penalties in the first half, the first 60 I think we had six or seven penalties, which is quite normal for a game of this magnitude.
“It was just the last bit, we conceded five in five minutes, which we can be a lot better in. I’ll take the positive out of that, the way that we defended our own line with the game already won and a bonus point in the bag. All credit to the players who put their bodies on the line and defended that goal line of ours with all that they had. But we’ve got to be better in terms of our discipline.”
As for Matt O’Connor’s lament that Andrew Conway failed in his “duty of care” toward the unfortunate Leicester fullback, Telusa Veainu – who suffered a broken jaw in the accidental collision which also forced Conway from the field with concussion – van Graan again trod a diplomatic path.
“Look, I respect Matt O’Connor. He is a coach who has been coaching at a high level for a very long time. He is a guy who has coached very successful teams. Obviously, he has got his opinion on the tackle. Having reviewed the incident again I thought Andrew made some contact. I felt he put his left arm around him.”
“There are certain processes in place in this game to keep players safe. The referee didn’t penalise him nor did the touch judge, nor did the TMO, nor the citing commissioner.
“To me it is in the past. It is unfortunate that both players got injured and, like I said Saturday night, at the end of the day it is people, you don’t want to see guys get injured. It is a physical game and in my opinion that is the only thing.”
When asked if O’Connor’s criticism of Conway was unfair, van Graan again played the straightest of straight bats.
“Like I said before, every guy is allowed have his opinion. To me the incident is in the past right now. Like I said before, I spoke to Andrew after the game and I spoke to him yesterday and today, he is fine. I think both players shook hands afterwards and that is the game of rugby; that is the beauty of rugby. It is a battle on the field but off the field all the effort is for one thing, just enjoying the game of rugby, shaking hands and then moving on.”