Munster are braced for the ultimate Racing test
This in-form French club are set to make it a daunting visit to the spanking new U Arena
Munster face a tough trip to the new state-of-the-art U Arena for Sunday’s Champions Cup Pool 4 game against Racing 92. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Johann van Graan could have been forgiven for wincing when he first heard of Racing’s 58-6 win over Clermont last Sunday in their spanking new U Arena, where Munster will face the Parisians on Sunday in a huge Pool 3 clash on Sunday (4.15pm local, 3.15pm Irish – live on Sky Sports).
Granted, there were mitigating circumstances. Clermont are experiencing the now customary post-bouclier de brennus hangover which French champions suffer, and have virtually given up on making their domestic end-of-season playoffs in instead targeting Europe.
With 17 front line players on their casualty list, they rested Morgan Parra and their remaining front-liners in picking a callow team last weekend. Their debutant 18-year-old Spanish academy winger Samuel Ezeala, was knocked out for over a minute before the hour mark after tackling Racing’s winger Virini Vakatawa, with Romain Poite stopping the game for over seven minutes.
White sheets were held up around Ezeala as medical staff treated the concussed player before he was rushed to hospital as almost 20,000 supporters fell silent, before Clermont posted a picture of Ezeala sitting up on his bed and smiling on Monday, and declared: “Good news on Samuel Ezeala as the MRI scan showed nothing to worry about.”
Even so, after suffering their own post-bouclier hangover last season, Racing’s win maintained a rich vein of form which has seen them rise to third in the Top 14 after seven wins in eight matches, including a 40-28 win away to Toulon.
“I won’t say I was surprised [by that result] because they are a quality outfit,” said van Graan. “Any team who scores 58 points in the middle of winter does well. Look, they’ve got quality internationals all over the park and I believe if one or two of their players were from other nationalities, they could possibly even be World Player of the Year.
“They’ve got threats all over the park, so if you give them broken field they will punish you. There are teams that have kept it fairly tight and there are some weaknesses within quality individuals, so I think the biggest message from our side is that we’ve got to focus on our game. We’ve got to keep it tight and once opportunities present themselves, it’s very important that we use them.
“I’ve got no doubt about how good they actually are; they are quality. To get a positive result in Paris on Sunday we will have to be at our very best.”
Then there’s the U Arena’s 4G pitch, where Racing have beaten Toulouse and Clermont either side of winning away to Oyannax on their synthetic pitch, thus meaning they will become the first professional rugby side to play on all-weather pitches for four games in a row, and this is their third under their new roof, whereas you wouldn’t have put a cat out in Ireland yesterday.
“It makes it very different,” acknowledged van Graan, before moving yesterday’s session to the 4G pitch in the UL.
“We perceive that it will be a lot quicker the game. You need to readjust your breakdown strategy. You might get away with the least amount of numbers [there] because teams on a 4G pitch tend to get a lot more quick ball. You just have to look at Saracens when they play at home and Glasgow when they play at home. Again, like every week and every team in the world, we do our research, hopefully all of this will be a positive on Sunday and then it’s all on the day.”
On the day when Simon Zebo’s move to Racing next season was finally confirmed by the Parisian club, as even the cats in Limerick’s O’Connell Street had known since October, the challenges don’t end there.
Although Gerbrandt Grobbler spent last season with Racing, Donnacha Ryan’s presence in the Parisian ranks gives them some serious insider information, given he played 164 games for Munster over a 13-year period.
“I’ve never worked with Donnacha but I think he’s a fantastic rugby player,” said van Graan. “I’ve coached against him. Obviously, he will do what’s best for Racing at this stage. Let me put it to you this way: they are possibly one of the best set-piece teams in Europe. You’ve just got to look at their scrum; look at their lineout.
“I’ve watched them now for quite a while and I believe that after New Zealand they are possibly the best man-watch contesting side in the world. They put your lineout under severe pressure, so we’ll have to be at our best to get some quality ball.”
If Munster win they qualify for the knock-out stages for the 17th time, while a bonus point ought to keep them just atop the pool but lose without one and they will be overtaken prior to the final weekend, when hosting Castres to Thomond Park.
“Our mindset is the same as every single game. We start at zero, we prepare well, we respect the opposition,” maintained van Graan. “It might be 0-0 at half-time; it might be three or six tries in the first half. We’ve got to adapt. To get a result we’ll need 80 minutes in this game. They’re also playing for their life so they’ll fight for the 80 or 83 minutes, whatever this game goes to.”
The squad attended the removal of Tommy O’Donnell’s brother, Gearóid, on Monday. Sadly well used to dealing with off-field upheaval, their head of athletic performance Aled Walters will be following Rassie Erasmus to South Africa in March.
Wishing him well, van Graan added: “He’s a big loss to Munster but we’ll adapt. Luckily this team is very good at adapting and accepting change. Change is one of the only constants in life. There will be change. He’s here until March. We’ll find somebody good.”
Chris Farrell, Conor Oliver and Rhys Marshall suffered no ill-effects on their return to action against Connacht on Saturday night, which was particularly important in the case of Farrell given Sam Arnold is still suspended.
Billy Holland and Chris Cloete are continuing to follow return to play protocols but the likelihood is that both will return. Calvin Nash, Niall Scannell, Tommy O’Donnell, Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute remain sidelined, while Munster’s South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler has returned to full training this week but is unlikely to be recalled for such a big game, having injured his ankle in pre-season.
Grobler received a two-year ban after he tested positively for the anabolic steroid drostanolone following a Currie Cup match in October 2014, and after a season with Racing joined Munster on a one-year deal.
“I believe life is very simple,” said van Graan. “All of us sitting here, everybody in life makes mistakes. I believe life is 10 per cent what happens and 90 per cent how you react to it. He served his ban. He’s worked really hard to get back to fitness and then in the warm-up game, which I saw here, he had a big injury and he had to fight his way back.
“Obviously, he wants to achieve a lot of things in his life. He’s such a talented rugby player so for him personally there’s a lot to prove. The ban in my view is a long time in the past. Like I said, every person on this planet makes mistakes, it’s how we come back from them. He’s fought through them really well, I thought, and he’s a quality individual so we wish him well in his journey back.”