Van Graan: ‘You have to give it to them. They are currently the best team by a mile’

Munster coach admits gap between Munster and Leinster remains a wide one

By now, Johann van Graan can relate to Sisyphus. Another season-defining game, another Leinster 80 minutes to take everyone’s breath away, the Munster rock rolls down the hill.

Back to zero.

Take Gavin Coombes as a shining example of progress since the South African took charge in November 2017. Natural strength and manic intent, the 23-year-old, hailing from the new breeding ground of west Cork, accepted the rules of engagement with a turbo-charged Rhys Ruddock.

Coombes was a revelation both sides of the ball.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen, glancing at the flop, calmly raised the stakes with Ryan Baird.

No Irish rugby player has ever moved like the 21-year-old Dubliner. Baird looked bigger than everyone else on the field. Faster and stronger too.

Proof is available. When CJ Stander, who symbolises Munster toughness for the past nine seasons, charged into St Michael’s latest prototype of the modern rugby man, he was bloodied and brought to his knees before Baird dispossessed him like an adult would relieve a child.

Another obscene moment had Baird holding up Tadhg Beirne, as if grappling with a boy several years his junior rather than the versatile lock/flanker blocking his path into the Ireland pack. When Beirne got a desperate knee on the turf, and the referee yelled "tackle blue", Baird's robotic release and return to the defensive line was arguably more impressive than the collision itself.

“They are currently too good for anyone in the Pro 14,” said Van Graan. “We are the closest to them but that is not good enough. Once they go two scores up nobody catches them.”

Except for Saracens in the 2019 Champions Cup final.

Munster, and the box kick to nowhere, were constantly putting out fires while Leinster players gleefully trotted around the Showgrounds dousing their ancient rivals with kerosene. This Pro 14 final, thinly veiled as a contest, provided a lesson in total control.

Van Graan has compiled the most qualified coaching ticket Munster has ever known. Graham Rowntrees and Stephen Larkhams are difficult to find. It helped that the Leicester forwards guru and Wallaby attacking sensation saw the value to their own careers in joining the project to return the red province to former glory.

Failing that, to even up the rivalry with Leinster.

No expense was spared recruiting World Cup winners RG Snyman and Damien de Allende from the Springbok reservoir of power. That and coaching expertise was supposed to earn them some silverware after a 10-year famine. Instead, De Allende was overwhelmed by Robbie Henshaw while Snyman's injury absence is erased by James Ryan's recovery from concussion.

Progress has been real. Munster has taken its game and squad to another level since the previous defeat to Leinster. But this resounding 10-point hammering – it would have been a shock of Luxembourg proportions to see them escape with the trophy – forces questions upon the coach about the undeniable pattern that has emerged.

“You are definitely not going to put words in my mouth,” said Van Graan before providing all the words that are needed to describe the state of a derby Munster dominated in previous decades.

“We currently can’t get past them. No team can currently get past them now. They are exceptionally good. 15 players in their 23 played against England last weekend.”

Five Munster players togged also against England; Stander, Beirne, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls, while Joey Carbery, Jean Kleyn, Andrew Conway and Chris Farrell were out to prove they can be the dominant men in their respective positions.

Munster, despite getting all the help they have asked for, came up short. Henshaw embalming Farrell and the ball rubbishes talk of tight selection calls for Ireland.

Van Graan, honest to a fault, conceded that Leinster dominated the aerial and scrum battles.

“You have to give it to them. They are currently the best team by a mile.”

Joey Carbery levelled the final at 6-all before half-time but Munster and their leaking defence were missing half chances whereas Rory O'Loughlin twice failed to give Jordan Larmour a clear run to the right corner flag.

The empty stadium braced for a second half of epic proportions. Instead, all the doubt planted in Leinster heads was dissolved by a stunning team try. Henshaw made the initial yardage before Jack Conan took up the baton. On went Leinster, jabbing and bullying Munster under their own uprights, where Beirne denied Conan's attempt to burrow in for a try.

The incumbent Ireland number eight was not to be denied, however, and after shunting half the Munster backline over the line from a scrum, Conan reappeared to forcibly take the five points just as O’Mahony limped out of the fray.

It was a try that crushed any idea of Leinster having a domestic peer. Toulon, the new money French club, have their turn on Friday. Perhaps Munster believe they have a better chance of containing Toulouse and Antonie Dupont’s wizardry in Limerick.

“There is a feeling we gave it all we got and came up short. It is tough to take but that is the position we are in. We just have to get up and go again.”

From the very bottom of a steep climb.

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