Munster using South African tour as a boost ahead of Racing clash
Johann van Graan says that a lot of good came from the two weeks down south
Munster Head Coach Johann van Graan said his team can take a lot from their tour of South Africa. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When Munster were landed with a two-game, two-week trek to South Africa in readiness for next Sunday’s European Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 at the in Bordeaux (kick-off 3.15pm Irish time), it looked like the shortest of short straws. Watching the way they celebrated their second of wins of their mini tour against the Cheetahs last Friday, it looked like they’d turned a negative into a positive.
Bringing the 23-man match-day squad, with supplementary players, now looks even more like a masterstroke. The intensity and demands of their schedule were akin to the Lions tour in microcosm. The spirit they demonstrated in overcoming Toulon appears, if anything, to have been strengthened.
“Most definitely,” asserted Johann van Graan on Tuesday. “We used this last two weeks as a total positive. Firstly, building relationships. Teams don’t get to tour that much. We went to some fantastic places in South Africa and the South African people were really good to the team.
“We also used our time smartly. We trained really hard when we needed to, to possibly improve on the Toulon performance. We gave the Kings and the Cheetahs the respect they deserved. Especially that Cheetahs game was really tough.
“In the background, we started working on Racing. The fact that we could take close to our strongest team across to South Africa worked in our favour, so that we are all on the same page.”
Noting how they made 10 changes for the win over the Southern Kings and then nine against the Cheetahs, he added: “We used the squad so everyone on tour knew exactly what part they had to play in getting results.” That earned them a home quarter-final in the Pro12 with a game to spare “and now we can put all our attention on the Champions Cup semi-final.” Helpfully too, the nine-day turnaround won’t affect their normal training routine.
Munster exchanged home wins with Racing in the pool stages before beating Toulon 20-19 in the quarter-finals, and with their array of big carriers up front, offloading game and expensively assembled squads, van Graan described the French outfits as “pretty similar”.
“They’ve got world-class players all across the board,” he said of Racing. “I think the off-loading game of some of the Racing forwards is very, very good. I said it the previous time, their line-out contesting is second to the All Blacks, I believe. They really put you under pressure.”
Citing how players such as the “world-class” Maxime Machenaud, with his goal-kicking and general distribution, and Patrick Lambie “can deliver in big moments” van Graan added: “When you can bring on players like Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko, you know that you’ve got depth in your squad. It’s a massive challenge for Munster going to France on a Sunday afternoon and trying to beat them there.”
Munster don’t have anything like the same playing budget, but in addition to the quality of their own individuals they also have a never-die-spirit which ensures the collective adds up to more than the sum of the parts.
Asked if that was coachable, van Graan said: “It’s a very good question. It’s firstly in your DNA. It’s in the way that you operate from day to day. I said to the guys way back in November ‘you don’t become a champion when you get a trophy, you become a champion every single day of your life.’ So, to us, it’s all about habits.”
“Hopefully our habits will pull us through. That’s what gives you confidence is your systems, the fact that you’ve been doing it week in, week out for 42 or 43 weeks. That needs to pull you through. Like I said before this is a special place, a special club with special people and I can’t stress enough the players and management really want to do it and I believe we can.”
Munster won’t have the Thomond Park factor, but the Red Army is expected to outnumber Parisian supporters, with initial estimates of 6,000 probably being surpassed, whereas Racing may have less than 2,000.
Noting their support in the home quarter-final and the 250 or so who followed them around South Africa, van Graan said: “It would be great to have many of them over in Bordeaux. But we need to perform on the field as well. This is a new game, new ball, new referee, totally different conditions, a quality side, we have to perform to the best of our ability on Sunday to get a result.” In advance of their departure, the Mayor of Limerick, Stephen Keary, and the Limerick City and County Council are endeavouring to turn the city red on Friday,
Van Graan repeated his mantra of returning to zero, warned against playing the game before Sunday and maintained that the experience of losing in the semi-finals last year to Saracens was “a massive positive”. He has experience of semi-finals himself, not least at the last World Cup when part of the Springboks’ coaching ticket which lost to eventual champions New Zealand.
“The main thing I’ve learnt from semi-finals is that you have got to embrace the expectation. You’ve got to enjoy it. It’s such a massive game; it’s 80 minutes away from a Champions Cup final in Spain.
“If you don’t get through it, if you fall short there’s no second-place. It’s all or nothing, but again that’s why you want to be part of this. It’s why you play, it’s why you’re in management, it’s why you’re a doctor, it’s why you’re in the media to get to games like this. It’s four quality teams in the semi-finals, two will make it and two won’t, and I hope that we’re good enough to be in this final.”