January could be decisive for all four provinces in Pro14 and Europe
Van Graan expects another ‘big battle’ as Munster visit in-form Connacht
Leinster’s Jack Conan and Johnny Sexton scuffle with Munster’s Fineen Wycherley during one of several flashpoints during the Pro14 clash at Thomond Park. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Rarely has a Connacht-Munster match had so much significance, particularly after Munster followed up Connacht’s historic double over Ulster on Friday with a tempestuous 26-17 win over Leinster on Saturday night when there was more cordite than traditional mist in the Thomond Park air.
The Ospreys’ shock 23-22 defeat to the Dragons yesterday leaves Connacht third and within three points of second-placed Munster in Conference A of the Guinness Pro14 going into Saturday night’s meeting at the Sportsground (kick-off 7.35). Both Irish teams are on the coat tails of Glasgow, also surprising losers at home to Edinburgh on Saturday.
By contrast, despite their defeat, Leinster remain a handsome 13 points clear of Ulster in Conference B, whom they host at the RDS on Saturday (kick-off 5.15). Three teams are within three points of Ulster, including Scarlets, whose form has fallen off a cliff.
As things stand the play-offs would comprise four Irish teams, one Scottish and one Italian, with none from Wales. That would be the make-up for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup too!
Of course, there’s nine rounds remaining yet and January is shaping into a momentous month for all the provinces. Take Munster. Of their next seven games, five are away, and after Connacht they face defining Heineken Champions Cup games away to Gloucester and at home to Exeter.
“Connacht are playing some incredible rugby,” said Johann van Graan. “That will be another big battle and then you have Gloucester away and that is probably the game of the season for us thus far in the European Championship.
“I watched the Exeter-Northampton game with my family and that was a phenomenal game of rugby. They are coming next to Thomond Park, so incredible challenges are awaiting us.
“This was a massive game in our year. When the fixtures came out the 29th of December was very important for us because Leinster are the flag-bearers of European rugby. We wanted to measure ourselves against that and we came out on the right side. Now we are going into 2019 with a great challenge against Connacht.”
Hence, maintaining an unbeaten 2018 record at home was imperative, especially as Leinster were at a numerical disadvantage for an hour due to James Lowe’s red card and yellows for Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. As van Graan suggested, had they lost from 16-3 up at home against 14 men the damage could have been significant.
“I think it shows that in big games we can come past the mental barrier. From my side, and for the whole team, it was a massive moment regardless of how many guys are out on the field. At 16-10, if you let in a try there and you lose the game 17-16, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”
Munster’s defence was strong, with Tadhg Beirne forcing three turnovers, but they were indebted to Keith Earls’ late intercept try.
Yet, of his attack van Graan maintained: ‘I thought there were some good moments tonight. I won’t say that I’m completely happy. We left one or two chances out there.
“We are still growing as a team. We’ve got a lock [Beirne] who when he came here had never really called lineouts in big games. We’ve still got a halfback partnership that’s growing. It was only their second game together for Munster. [Dan] Goggin was back at 13 [after two months out]) so we’ve got a long way to go. I’ve said to the guys inside that if you beat the European and Pro14 champions and you’re not happy, that’s a sign of growth.”
All true, and hopefully Chris Farrell will enjoy an injury-free run soon. But, good player though Mike Haley is, Munster sorely miss Simon Zebo’s roving eye for space, offloading, ability to beat a man and telepathic understanding with Murray.
Saturday’s feisty encounter may have repercussions for Leinster’s crunch January programme in a likely suspension for Lowe, and were Furlong to be cited for his high hit on Chris Cloete. The latter’s injury “could be serious” according to van Graan, although the South African flanker was smiling and chatting with him after the game.
Leo Cullen was hopeful the authorities will be lenient on Lowe.
“You’d hope so, yeah. It is a clumsy challenge. We just hope that the winger for Munster is okay, first and foremost. It’s clumsy from James the way he’s looking because the environment is pretty chaotic out there. You need to have your wits and senses about you.”
Cullen laughed off any suggestions that referee Frank Murphy, a former Munster player, was compromised, noting that he played with Murphy at Leicester and that Alain Rolland, a former Leinster man, had refereed this fixture previously.
“We need to get more referees from Leinster so that’s a different question,” he added wryly, before quipping. “We’re waiting for Johnny to retire.”
Even Sexton, sitting alongside, laughed at that one.
Regarding the pre-planned strategy to replace Sexton on the hour with Ciaran Frawley, Cullen said: “Ciaran will be better for the experience I think. We did question ourselves at the time but we stuck to the plan ultimately.
“For us, it’s about looking forward now. Dust ourselves off; how we can get better, how we can manage particularly that first 32 minutes because that first 32 minutes cost us the game. It’s nothing to do with the commitment from our players right until the very end.
“We’ve got Ulster at the weekend who are in our conference and we’ve Toulouse the week after and Wasps the weekend after that and then Scarlets, who are also in our conference. That’s four huge weeks for us.”