Munster can take a sizeable stride towards claiming the ‘pot’ at the end of the inaugural Rainbow Cup by completing an interprovincial trifecta against Connacht at Thomond Park on Friday night (6.0, live on Eir Sport).
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the orientation of the fledgling tournament a couple of times already, although the conclusion of the competition has yet to be definitively clarified. A third Munster victory to follow those against Leinster and Ulster would leave them in a very strong position.
Munster head coach Johann van Graan was understandably pleased with the manner of his team’s latest success against Ulster, the fluent attacking patterns and willingness to keep the ball alive complementing the hard-nosed aggression at the breakdown that had been a central tenet of their victory over Leinster on the opening weekend of the competition.
The South African explained: “It’s nice to get a complete performance. We converted our opportunities. I thought our breakdown work was excellent on both sides of the ball. That’s a big part of our DNA and something that we will keep going back to. I thought some of our phase attacks and options were very, very good.
“The one thing that we shouldn’t miss [singling out] if you look at our last two games is our defence. We conceded three points against Leinster and 10 versus Ulster; against two sides that won 14 out of 16 matches in the league phase the same as ourselves, so we conceded 13 points in the last 160 minutes. There is a lot to be positive about.”
He’s pleased that there is no diminution in the quality of performances despite making nine changes from the Leinster to Ulster matches and the prospect of more again at the weekend.
A follow-on enquiry as to whether Munster intended to make any more signings ahead of next season inadvertently alighted on Mike Haley and the fullback's stellar contribution as he prepares to compete with the returning Simon Zebo among others for the position next season.
Van Graan said: “We are good with what we have now. We have Rowan [Osborne], Zeebs [Simon Zebo] and Jason [Jenkins] coming in [and] I think nine Academy guys are going up to the senior side, which is phenomenal. So, I am really happy with our senior squad. Obviously we will still add some guys, in conjunction with the IRFU, to our Academy.
“Mike has been one of our most consistent performers, [he’s] started in every game that we’ve selected him; I don’t think he has ever come from the bench. He has been phenomenal since he came over from Sale. That’s why we got him. We saw some magic in him.”
Van Graan singled out Haley's high-ball work and counterattacking skills before he continued: "We have got some really good fullbacks in our system, Matt Gallagher is a guy that has been injured; Jake Flannery [and] Shane Daly, it will be a real battle not only for the number 15 jersey next season but also for the two wingers. A lot of our back three can play in multiple positions.
“Mike has been incredible this season, I think one of our very best players and there will certainly be a lot of competition in our back three next year.”
The Munster coach was then asked to provide some personal context in appraising Conor Murray’s selection for a third Lions tour.
“I’ve been privileged to coach some phenomenal nines, including a guy like Fourie du Preez, who before I came to Ireland was the best nine that I’d coached. Conor is up there with the very best.He just gets on with his business, one of the guys in the team who never says too much but turns up every single week. Again, the performance on the weekend against Ulster I thought was class.
“He’s a proud Munster man, a proud Irishman and he’s a world-class player. I know I’m very glad that he’s at Munster and I’m very happy I have the opportunity to coach him. Lockdown has been big for him, he said that publicly. He refocused his goals and he’s now as good as he’s ever been. I can’t speak highly enough of Conor, that’s the short of a long story.”
Van Graan was unable to confirm a return date for Springbok secondrow RG Snyman who underwent some minor knee surgery to tidy one or two issues as he looks to return from the original ACL tear.
He said: “The operation went well. He’s in good spirits. There is no specific timeline as of yet whether he will return for us first of whether he will return for the Springboks. He has started his rehab with our medical team.”