Johann van Graan reflects on ‘toughest game since I came to Munster’
‘You’ve got to get out of your pool. We did the hard work and we’re into a quarter-final’
Munster head coach Johann van Graan leaves Thomond Park after his team beat Exeter. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
A relieved Johann van Graan described Munster’s 9-7 Champions Cup win over Exeter as the toughest game of rugby he has experienced in his 13 months or so as their head coach.
In actual fact, Munster could have conceded a last-ditch try to lose the game and still advanced to a record 18th quarter-final, but that would have been an undignified way to do it.
“The last couple of minutes were actually okay, it was the first couple of minutes,” said van Graan wryly after an even lower scoring game than the 10-all draw on the opening weekend at a windy Sandy Park.
“It was definitely the toughest game of rugby since I came to Munster. Two teams that didn’t want to give up and if you get only one score in the second-half when games normally open up, it just shows how intense it was.
“It will definitely not go down as the prettiest game of rugby but we had a chat at half-time and we had to adapt our plan, and look at our composure, and I thought we did it really well in the second half. I thought everybody from one to 23 gave it their all.
“A special mention for the Chiefs. I’ve said it so many times before, it’s a rugby team and a club that I respect so much and you’ve got to give them credit. It was literally to the last play of the game that it was in the balance.”
“From our point of view, when the dust settles and we open up our eyes tomorrow morning we wake up and we’re in a quarter-final. That’s the main thing. You’ve got to get out of your pool. We did the hard work and we’re out of pool and into a quarter-final.”
Ultimately, Munster found a way to win despite the pressure, whether of the occasion or applied by Exeter, preventing them from playing anything like their best rugby.
We’d have to come out here and front up physically and emotionally, and we did that extremely well
“It’s not so much the errors, it’s more the pressure. It was pressure from both sides and I think both sides made mistakes. We had to adapt our kicking game in the second half and I thought we did so very well. Two special moments from Andrew (Conway) gave us territory and I thought our maul came into the game in the second half.
“We conceded a few penalties. I’ll go and have a look at them, but that steal from Billy Holland five yards from the line was a momentum shift. They score there, they go eight points ahead and then we needed to chase and it might have opened the game up.
“All credit to the guys, I spoke in the week about the will to win and one to 23 showed their will to win tonight.”
Of Tadhg Beirne’s man of the match display, van Graan said: “I think Tadhg’s a special player. He’s had a few man of the match performances in this competition. He’s very dynamic and he’s one of the only locks in world rugby who can poach the way he can.
“He’s worked so hard on his calling. When he arrived he wasn’t really a calling option, I threw him into the deep end. I think he’s developed into one of the form locks in the competition.”
Beirne was hauled ashore after receiving treatment on a knee injury and van Graan said: “It’s pretty early. He’ll definitely go for a scan on that knee. Hopefully it’s not serious, but he couldn’t continue. We’ll get the information across to Joe; eleven of our lads are going to the national side tomorrow.”
Asked to speak about his match-winner, Joey Carbery, who took his haul to 20 kicks in a row and was sitting alongside him, van Graan was effusive.
“The very first day I met him, I asked him ‘why do you want to come to Munster’. He said: He wanted to come to make a difference and to fit in and he wants to make this a better team. He’s done so with every single action of his on and off the field.
“After the Castres game when he missed maybe one or two penalties, to come back and kick 20 out of 20, that’s incredible. That’s a sign of pure class. His willingness to learn, his willingness to improve is an incredible trait of a very young rugby player.
“There was a lot of expectation when he came to Munster, but the way he’s handled himself . . . he is a special man and a special player, I’m proud to be his coach.”
Coming across as far too worldly and focused for a 23-year-old on the crest of a wave, Carbery himself said: “It’s obviously great to get but there’s still nothing won, there’s still nothing accomplished this season.
“To be honest, I’m just doing my job. Helping the players around me so that they can benefit from it. We’ll take good confidence coming in, we’re in a good position now but then we got to keep building every day and keep learning and improving as a team which I think we’ve done really well over this Christmas period.”
Carbery believes Munster will derive more confidence from beating a team like the Chiefs.
“Definitely, Exeter are a special team. They are very, very good; very tough to break down and very physical as well. I suppose the more we progress in this competition, the harder it’s going to get. So, the more we can learn from games like this, influence it into our game, then the better we’re going to be. So, the better teams we play, the better we’re going to be. It’s a learning curve.”
The Chiefs’ long-serving head coach Rob Baxter admitted to feeling mixed emotions.
“I’ve very proud of how we fought today. We kind of ticked all the boxes we wanted to get right this week and it hasn’t quite forced the result and we knew to get the result there were a few things that we’d have to deal with.
“We’d have to come out here and front up physically and emotionally, and we did that extremely well, we dealt with setbacks during the game and fought our way out of different scenarios really well, and we probably just about created a couple of chances that we didn’t take.
“In the last 10 minutes, getting the five metre lineout would have made it a very interesting game if we could have converted some pressure there but Munster did the same, really, they saw themselves through some difficult moments as well and came back and forced that match-winning penalty.
“And congratulations to them, I think we fronted up really well against Munster in two games and they’ve come away with the win and the draw and are deserved pool winners.
“We kind of know where we stand, we’re pretty pleased with a lot of things we’ve done in Europe without quite forcing the results we needed. The only real blip was the home game against Gloucester, but it wasn’t by any means a humbling.
“We are kind of there or thereabouts, there were a few things that we have to work on but we’re still an improving side. We have got the right age demographic, we are a kind of mid-20s age range and that whole team is going to stay together next season.
“Thing are looking good for us, all these experiences that we’re having, we’re going to be better for them and I felt today was a great experience for our players and we’ve dealt with most things without quite getting there.
“But it’s going to be an interesting campaign for us next year as well.”