No coach likes to lose and Johann van Graan doesn’t buck that trend but considering the circumstances surrounding and during Munster’s 13-8 defeat to the Exeter Chiefs, there were several reasons to be cheerful.
Seven frontline players missed the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 first leg through injury or, in the case of Simon Zebo and replacement hooker Diarmuid Barron, gastroenteritis. That handicap initially appeared insurmountable as the Exeter dominated for much of the first half but Munster's cussedness and a dollop of good fortune here and there enabled them to stay in the fight.
How Munster managed to be only 10-3 down at the interval on the balance of play was a minor miracle but at that point van Graan was able to address several issues. He explained: "We needed to sort out our breakdown and our scrum at halftime; (it) was a lot better in the second half and we needed to get field position.
“(You’re) never happy with a loss. We came here to win. We had opportunities to win it with the score on 13-8. We scored there and we could potentially win it but they also had opportunities.
“From a round of 16 point of view, you can’t win this tie in the first (game) but you can certainly lose it and we feel we’re very much in this game at Thomond Park.”
One aspect of the performance that must have pleased van Graan was Munster’s defence, stretched to breaking point at times but only breached twice. It was remarkable considering the number of chances that Exeter created. Van Graan said: “Last week’s defence (in the defeat to Leinster) wasn’t good enough from our side. We haven’t conceded four tries in two and a half years, so we were unhappy with that.
“The main thing from my side, that I challenged our group, was that we never give up. These guys fought until literally the ball was on the floor. The satisfying thing from a coaching point of view is that we stayed in the battle. The fact that we stayed in this game mentally is big for (the) next (game).
"I think the Munster spirit is alive and well. It's not (just) the young guys, it is the whole group, young guys (and) old guys. (It's) Keith Earls making that tackle, Conor Murray (with a couple of key defensive reads) and then you have guys like (John) Hodnett and (Alex) Kendellen. We as a group are very tight. The Munster support is incredible, and we saw that again (in the stadium)."
The coaching staff and players spoke in the huddle that they had only reached the halfway point in the tie and that the team that improves the most will prevail. “We’ve got to learn from this, they will learn from this.
“We focused a lot on the history and what we know about Exeter. They’re a team that never goes away and we’re a team that never goes away. Our theme was ``we’re going to fight for 80 minutes, which I believe we did and then be in the game for (the second leg).” As a plan it remains intact but the proviso is that Munster will have to be better next week to travel further.