Van Graan says Toulon can be beaten ‘the Munster way’

On paper the odds appear stacked against Munster - until Thomond Park factor kicks in

Munster squad training in UL  on Monday. Phototgraph: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Munster squad training in UL on Monday. Phototgraph: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane


At face value, once again the odds appear to be stacked against Munster. Three-time winners Toulon have three or four times the playing budget, and in contrast to Munster’s ever-lengthening casualty list, the French club’s apparent rude health was underlined by their 49-0 thrashing of Clermont on Sunday.

On paper, Munster should be facing a mountainous challenge, but of course, this quarter-final will be played at Thomond Park, where heroic deeds by the home team have littered this competition’s rich history – witness eight wins out of nine previous home quarter-finals.

So when head coach Johann van Graan was asked how Munster can defy the French behemoths, he said simply, “the Munster way”.

“Rugby games are won in the hearts of men,” he continued. “We back the people of Munster to pull us through. I get goosebumps when I say things like this but sport is about doing the unthinkable, go to where other teams aren’t prepared to go.”

“When you see things like this,” he added in reference to Toulon’s beating of Clermont, “you really do respect the opposition because you know they might take you apart. But rugby games are 50-50 occasions, it’s the same for both teams, it’s all about 80 minutes. You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning [at training] and everyone is ready to go.”

Munster’s Limerick citadel will be packed to its increased capacity of 26,567, with Toulon having returned roughly 3,000 of their 25 per cent allocation last week, the final 1,000 of which went on sale on Monday.

Asked how important the Thomond Park factor could be, van Graan said: “Maybe the best way I can say it is [that] the opportunity of a lifetime lasts as long as the lifetime of the opportunity. We’ve got 80 minutes of rugby. At the end of the day it’s a rugby game at home. Even the small crowd that came out on Saturday at Thomond Park, they made a lot of noise. That’s why you work for home-ground advantage. Four teams worked exceptionally hard to get home quarter-finals and we’re one of them.” 

“You’ve earned it but at the end of the day it’s an all-new competition now. It’s a once-off, 80 minutes and we’ll use the home crowd but we’ve got to play well as well. We’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to execute, we’ve got to be physical and we’ve got to win big moments. Hopefully when that ball goes up into the air one or two moments will go our way and hopefully we can get some momentum and play some good rugby.”

Injury woes

Even so, Munster’s injury woes have left their backline looking decidedly threadbare, and they will be without two, three or even four of a notional frontline combination, as well as other options, while the absence of both Tommy O’Donnell and Chris Cloete leaves them without their two primary opensides.

Yet van Graan maintained: “I see it as a massive positive. We’ve got some really good options, CJ [Stander] and Peter O’Mahony coming back; we’ve got Jack O’Donoghue who has played some fantastic rugby; Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver, and Robin Copeland has been unbelievable. I said to him after that performance over the weekend, he did some things that very few players in the world can do.”

“It’s great to have these options available. We’ve had a long hard think of what we want to do and personnel wise, every time we lose someone we gain someone. You’ve got to slightly adapt your plan, and also look at what the opposition do. They do pose a massive maul threat, especially off their five-man lineout, once they get close to your goal line.”

“Then you’ve got to spin it around and see what you can do to disrupt them. We’ve had a lot of time to think and plan and play around with a few ideas, so we have got a plan and once the team is selected, hopefully the plan will work on Saturday.”

Toulon warmed up for this quarter-final with a remarkable 49-0 rout of Clermont, who weren’t far from full strength in personnel but looked disinterested and were mauled and scrummed into submission up front. Chris Ashton scored one of Toulon’s seven tries, all converted by Anthony Belleau, despite resting French captain Guilhem Guirado and All Blacks World Cup-winning centre Ma’a Nonu.

Once they get momentum they’re very difficult to stop

Ashton is flourishing at fullback, so much so that his 21st try of the season has already equalled the record for a top 14 season achieved by Napolioni Nalaga in the 2008-09 season while playing for Clermont.

Toulon’s performance rather gave the lie to reports of unrest between their players and head coach Fabien Galthié, who commented afterwards: “We can’t say that we expected this, scoring 49 points but it’s what we were aiming for. We must remember how we played in the first half. It was remarkable.”

Not that their performance changed van Graan’s view of them. “No, it just emphasised how good they are. Once they get momentum they’re very difficult to stop. Some of their scrums were incredible, they just went through the opposition and I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to respect them, they way they did it.”

“It was a quality Clermont side and the way they [Toulon] went about their business, close to 40 minutes they almost racked up 40 points. They rested a few key individuals so it will be a massive challenge and that just confirmed the enormous task that awaits us.”

“Looking forward to it very much and we’ll take it day by day. We started this morning on zero as usual and we go about our business in the usual way and I can’t wait for Saturday afternoon.”

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