Munster well primed for crunch Euro showdown
Van Graan’s men feeling better about themselves after ticking boxes against Connacht
Munster’s Jean Kleyn in a maul during their Guinness PRO14 clash with Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Munster go into their crunch Heineken Champions Cup game against Gloucester at Kingsholm next Friday night in good fettle and feeling altogether better about themselves after ticking several boxes against Connacht at a packed Sportsground on Saturday night.
To put their 31-24 bonus point win in perspective, in backing up their victory over Leinster, they engineered the only away win in this three-round interpro mini series.
Hence, like Leinster, Munster took 10 points from their three games and, with Glasgow slipping up again in Treviso, it even meant they go into the Gloucester game atop Conference A.
A recharged Peter O’Mahony was back, and back to his best, after being rested for a couple of weeks, and Chris Farrell made a strong return to the fray, while Johann van Graan could afford to restrict Conor Murray, CJ Stander and David Kilcoyne to match-sealing half-hour cameos off the bench.
His biggest concern arising out of Saturday’s win was John Ryan, who did not return after going off for an HIA approaching half-time, “so he’ll go through the normal process.”
Overall, though, van Graan was a contented man. “We knew we were playing against opponents who really attacked well and defended well, and I thought once we went into their 22 we were very accurate and that’s where all our tries came from. I thought the way we played tonight was a very good performance, certainly the best performance of the season so far.”
Although Connacht slipped to fourth, they remain level on points with the Ospreys, trail Glasgow by five and Munster by seven. “This will go right down to the wire until that last game of the season, and then we play Connacht again at home,” said van Graan.
“So really happy that we are currently in first place but we’ll pretty quickly get past that and go into Gloucester, because that’s where we want to focus on next and we have to get a few points next Friday night if we want to stay in Europe.”
The game also afforded van Graan and Munster a first chance to give the assured Joey Carbery a 20-minute run at full-back, from where his try sealed a 16-point, man-of-the-match performance.
“Obviously he’s currently our number one fly-half and that’s where we see him, but it was nice to get another playmaker onto the field,” said van Graan. “Rory [Scannell] didn’t play tonight so that linking job between 10 and 15 was good.
“I thought teams really focused on him over the last few weeks to cut down his space and I thought at 15 tonight he got a bit of space. He’s very quick and very difficult to stop one-on-one, and I thought he did well.”
Gloucester, for their part, were without the influential Danny Cipriani in losing 34-16 away to Leicester. But their coach, Johan Ackermann, said that Cipriani – sent off in Munster’s round two win in Thomond Park – could return next Friday.
The following day, akin to Leinster and Ulster, Connacht will host pool leaders in the Challenge Cup when Sale (who toppled Saracens last Friday night) pitch up at the Sportsground.
We’re building as a squad. We had some big things happen during the week, different players pulling out
The bonus point earned a seven point-return from Connacht’s three interpros, albeit their haul could have been so much more.
Encouraged by the way his team withstood all manner of blows through the week and on the night, Andy Friend maintained: “We’re building as a squad. We had some big things happen during the week, different players pulling out.
“We had a training session on Tuesday which, for various reasons, wasn’t anywhere near where we wanted it to be. We had a good chat about that. I love the honesty within the group. We got ourselves beyond that. We had a very good session on Thursday, we had an excellent game prep yesterday [Friday] and we had a performance there tonight.”
Leinster host Toulouse at the RDS next Saturday on the back of a restorative 40-7 win over a weakened Ulster when also resting most of their front-liners.
“Some guys have had time off, they’ve been managed and it’s important they freshen up over the course of a long season,” said coach Leo Cullen. “It is a tricky time of the season for us. We need to manage it properly and there are a lot of moving parts to it. We think that overall it will stand to us as we go on.”
Toulouse’s 27-20 win away to Agen extended their unbeaten run to a dozen matches. “They have a belief now,” admitted Cullen. “They’ve gone away and got the draw against Clermont where they rotated a lot of players out of their team.”
“They’ve won on the road a few times against Wasps and again tonight [in Agen]. They are very dangerous, a very big squad. Even from when we played them, they had a few out injured, one or two suspensions from the Bath game that are all back now. They’ve more to add on top of what they had. It is going to be an unbelievable challenge.”
Leinster now lead Conference B by a whopping 19 points, while Ulster are fifth, two points off second-placed Edinburgh.
Ulster host a Racing side who had a 22-13 win at home to struggling Toulon on Saturday. While able to restore most of his front-liners, Dan McFarland is without Iain Henderson, and as for the equally talismanic but hamstrung Jacob Stockdale, he said he was “hopeful that he’ll be available”.