Johann van Graan’s imprint beginning to show at Munster
Coach’s focus on improving province’s attacking and passing game is starting to pay off
Munster coach Johann van Graan and CJ Stander after their 30-34 defeat to Racing. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It’s ironic in some ways that Rassie Erasmus seemingly tried to lure Felix Jones to South Africa, for the signs are that Jones’s influence has already become more pronounced under Johann van Graan. Maybe it was the fast surface and the indoor conditions, but Munster certainly came to play rugby at the U Arena on Sunday.
The signs of Van Graan’s own imprint are beginning to be seen, and while Racing had their own high-tempo bouts of play, if anything Munster appeared to have more mobility in the tight five than their relatively lumbering opponents, as well as the skillset to play with more width once they had adjusted to their setting.
Whereas Racing were more inclined to seek contact, and in spells early in each half did boss the collisions, Munster sought space. The Racing tight five forwards carried 30 times, compared with 17 by their Munster counterparts, and their backrowers 33 times, as against 16 carries by Munster’s loose forwards, with CJ Stander making, for him, a relatively modest seven carries, and David Kilcoyne five.
The Racing 9-10-12 axis also carried more, yet Chris Farrell and the Munster outside backs made 43 carries compared with just 26 by their Racing counterparts. This was despite Racing having 58 per cent of the possession, and even then Munster also completed more passes, 108 to 93.
At its heart was Conor Murray, whose influence is being brought even more to bear. Rarely has he flung so many long passes, once going back to the left off second phase with a huge skip pass to Keith Earls. Clearly, part of the objective was to get the ball into Earls’s hands, as well as giving him licence to counter-attack, and the razor-sharp Munster winger revelled on the 4G surface and the conditions, leading the match stats in clean breaks (three), defenders beaten (eight) and metres made (102).
Van Graan actually admitted Munster had planned for, and hoped for, a faster tempo. “The pace of the game, we thought it would be a lot different. We got pinged for two offside penalties straight away, so we needed to readjust in setting our line and I thought we did that quite well.
“They started the second half better than us but we came back every single time and got ourselves in front. I thought that was some of the best attack I’ve seen in the last year that Munster had. So that’s probably the most positive out of it.”
They’ve also added another weapon to their arsenal in the shape of Murray’s long-range goal-kicking. Again, conditions helped, but all three he attempted from in or around halfway comfortably had the distance, and having hit the post and seen one drift wide it was striking to see him confidently grab the ball and the kicking tee for his successful third strike.
The pity was that another Ian Keatley penalty also hit the upright, as well as a couple of more try chances that went abegging. “It’s unusual in a game for two kicks to hit the goalposts and then Conor went for his long-range penalties,” said Van Graan. “It’s something we want to bring into our game, somebody that can convert those 50m kicks and he kicked the final one.
“But look, a goal-kicker is always under pressure, and it’s a whole team thing,” he added, in admitting they should have scored a fourth try. “The positive out of it is we are creating multiple opportunities. It’s not a ‘drive, box, win the aerial game’. We’ve still got that as part of our armoury but we want to move forward and score more tries as well.
“When I accepted the job that was one of the things that I targeted in the European knock-outs, and also the two-week tour to South Africa and getting to April and May. From what I saw of Munster last year, they got so close in that semi-final against Saracens and then the Scarlets played very well in that final, but you need an all-round game.
“So we’re working very hard as a squad on our attack, on our passing ability. I thought the breakdown was very good, although it can still improve – again, Racing have so many stealers. But it’s a long season and the only thing that matters now is that we’ve got to recover and we’re back at Thomond Park and a win is enough to get us through to a quarter-final.”
Van Graan maintained that there was “a lot” more potential in the Munster backline. “It’s some of the things that people don’t see. Five minutes after the game you sit there and everybody is so disappointed. They gave it their all out there and I was actually sitting there with the backs and they know they probably left one or two chances out there. But they’re also excited about what we created against a pretty world-class backline.
“So there’s a lot of potential. Every week it’s about decision-making and finishing every chance and we’re still waiting for that perfect game. It still needs to improve for next week.”
Asked if Sunday’s attacking play was something that had been building all season or had been introduced by van Graan, Stander said “I think it’s a bit of both”, as he cited the example of Murray also being stationed in the Munster lineout and admitted that he’s been encouraged to pass more himself.
“He gives you that confidence to try something and make sure that you bring something more to the game. Yeah, look, I think we attacked well. The pitch gave us the chance to make the most of those opportunities, to put in a bit more passes. Chris Farrell ran some unbelievable lines and the whole backline play was exceptional.”