Van Graan expecting Carbery and Murray to play key roles against Edinburgh
Outhalf must still confirm his fitness while scrumhalf is seeking to regain his best form
Joey Carbery: Munster outhalf is expected to be fit to renew his partnership with scrumhalf Conor Murray against Edinburgh. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
The Champions Cup quarter-finals appear to have been shoehorned into the season’s itinerary with indecent haste just two weeks after the conclusion of the Six Nations, which didn’t exactly end on a high for Ireland’s frontline players.
However, an upbeat Munster head coach Johann van Graan believes his team will be locked and fully loaded for the province’s record 18th quarter-final against Edinburgh in Murrayfield on Saturday (kick-off 12.45pm).
Specifically, Van Graan is backing his Irish contingent to respond positively to their anti-climactic finale in Cardiff, and also the “world-class” Conor Murray and the fit-again Joey Carbery to continue their upward curve in a partnership which has been limited to just four starts together.
Seven of the Irish squad which featured in that 25-7 defeat by Wales are expected to be in Munster’s starting line-up and Van Graan said: “I think we coaches speak to our players and we as humans can never communicate enough. I had discussions with all the lads before they came in, speaking about what happened, get a plan in place for each individual, get out on the pitch this afternoon and train, and then make sure we as a group get together as soon as possible. All were in a good place when they arrived in here this morning.”
Carbery, the tournament’s leading scorer with 68 points, hasn’t played due to a hamstring tear since Ireland beat Scotland at the same venue six weeks ago, when his break and pass set up Keith Earls for the match-winning try.
“He’ll be available to train this afternoon. He has to get through training today and tomorrow. I’m not going to wait until the last minute to make this decision because he came from a hamstring injury and we’re not going to take any risks, so he’s got to come through training today and tomorrow.
“He believes he’s ready, I believe he’s going to be ready and he wants to play. We did a lot of planning last week off-field with him and if he comes through training I believe he’ll be ready to start on Saturday.”
While Van Graan is unstinting in his praise of the four outhalves on his books, it is a measure of Carbery’s impact that he is seen as vital to Munster’s hopes.
“He’s been one of our best players the whole season, not only his goal-kicking but his presence and his decision-making, and he’s one of those players who seem to thrive on the big stage and Saturday certainly is a big stage.”
As for Murray, who spent a few days in Dubai last week, Van Graan said: “I met up with Conor a week ago and went through his game. He’ll be the first to say he wants to improve every single week. He took a mental break and was really refreshed when he walked in here this morning and he’s really looking forward to the challenge.
“If you look at Edinburgh, they’ve got a very good kicking game and they’re very specific, and we’ve got a good kicking game and he’s a central figure in that.”
Murray’s form came in for some criticism during the Six Nations, but Van Graan maintained: “Look, I don’t read all the criticism and all the positives. All I know is that Conor is a world-class player. He wants to be the best in the business and he’ll work every single day as much as he can to be at his best on Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve got three days of training, which he’ll take a central part in, and I’m going to back him to have a brilliant performance on Saturday afternoon.”
Although the Murray-Carbery combination has only had four outings, beginning with that 13-12 pool loss away to Castres, Van Graan took heart from their last three games together, namely the wins over Leinster, Gloucester and Exeter.
The only missing player from the starting XV against Exeter, when Carbery’s three penalties from three secured a 9-7 win in what amounts to this side’s last outing en bloc 10 weeks ago, is the injured Tommy O’Donnell.
Chris Kloete would be an obvious alternative, although Jack O’Donoghue’s eye-catching first full outing of the season after recovering from a knee injury in last Saturday’s win over Zebre will provide food for thought.
Van Graan also derives encouragement from navigating their way through a pool containing Premiership leaders Exeter, who have already secured a domestic home semi-final, and third-placed Gloucester, as well as the anticipated Red Army invasion of Edinburgh. Over 30,000 tickets have been sold for the quarter-final through general release.
“Our support is fantastic and just listening already to stories about people travelling I think that’s what makes Munster in Europe very special. It will be a huge amount of supporters on Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh and we as a group are very aware of it, very thankful for the support that we do get home and away.”
That said, van Graan’s respect for Edinburgh, who have won 17 of their last 19 home games in Europe and 11 of 12 at Murrayfield in both competitions this season, is palpable.
“We’ve got big dreams, but to keep those dreams alive we have got to perform on Saturday afternoon against quality opposition playing really good rugby on their home turf.
“They’re very physical, I think their forward pack are very good scrummagers. You just have to look at what they did on Friday night in terms of their scrum and their maul,” he said in reference to their 28-11 win over Leinster last weekend.
“Their pick and go game in the ’22, they’re pretty relentless with that and they do the simple things very well. They are a very well coached side, you just have to look at the amount of internationals that became internationals over the past two seasons from Edinburgh to realise what a good side they are.”