Van Graan sets sights on home comforts against Leinster

Munster must beat Leinster this weekend to guarantee home quarter-final

Their interest in Europe having ended in acute pain against Toulouse last Saturday week, Munster return to the scene of the crime, as it were, in the final game of their regular URC season against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 7.15pm) needing a win to secure a home quarter-final at Thomond Park.

With another week's break to follow as attention turns to the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle in Marseilles, Johann van Graan has said Munster will send their strongest available side for Saturday's game.

“We’ve got to focus only on this game. We’ve got a week off next week so we’re going to put out our best available side. We’ve got to go to Dublin and play against the current champions in the URC. We obviously want to play at Thomond Park in the quarter-final, so we’ve got to go and make sure we perform and hopefully get the points to put ourselves in that position.”

Munster, who currently sit second, can finish anywhere from second to sixth after this weekend’s final full round of matches, and Van Graan is fully aware of the ensuing effect on their play-off hopes.

"In terms of the other teams, if you don't get the points, you might have to go to Belfast or you might have to go to Cape Town or Durban or Pretoria. You'd much rather stay in Limerick so what a good weekend for the URC to look forward to."

In the event of sides finishing level on points, the first criteria to separate them will be their number of wins and, if equal, points difference will then decide the pecking order.

Munster sit second on 56 points, ahead of the Sharks and Stormers due to their superior points' difference as all have 11 wins, with Ulster a further point behind and also with 11 wins, and the Bulls in sixth place on 53 points.

Ulster, host the Sharks on Friday night while the Bulls are away to the Ospreys, who are vying with the Scarlets to top the Welsh shield and secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup. The Scarlets themselves are at home to the Stormers on Saturday at 5.10pm.

While Simon Zebo and Damian de Allende have both been ruled out, and Peter O'Mahony remains a doubt, Gavin Coombes, Chris Cloete and Jack O'Sullivan have returned to training this week.

Van Graan decided to give his players four days off to recover from their draining Champions Cup exit, not least as it was Munster’s tenth game in consecutive weeks. They reconvened last Thursday to review the game before being afforded a long weekend off. “The guys definitely came back fresh on Monday.”

As to whether his side can reproduce that level of performance next Saturday, the Munster head coach said: “I think every game is different. It was a phenomenal day in terms of 40,000 Munster people going down to the Aviva. Obviously, it’s a different competition and a different feel.

“What we’re looking for is a performance on Saturday to be good enough to get a win to guarantee us a home quarter-final, that's the way we look at it from this weekend’s point of view.”

By contrast, Leinster are expected to rest all of their starting XV at least from last Saturday's convincing 40-17 semi-final win over Toulouse, but Van Graan doubted the team Leo Cullen sends out next Saturday will have one eye on the Champions Cup final.

“I can’t speak on their behalf, all I will say is they aren’t URC champions for nothing. It’s Munster versus Leinster in the Aviva, so we expect a massive game and it’ll be a tightly contested encounter.”

Citing Leinster's recent performances in South Africa when securing the losing bonus points against the Sharks and Stormers which secured top place in the URC table, he added: "Whatever team they select will be a tough game for us. We're playing away at the Aviva on Saturday."

Despite the nature of their Euro exit, Van Graan also maintained: “Morale and momentum is certainly on a very positive side in terms of us as a club.”

Munster were hit as hard as anyone by the Covid disruptions and postponement of their original fixtures in South Africa but Van Graan believes the addition of the four Super Rugby sides from his native land has benefitted a competition he believes will grow.

“The South African teams coming up at the start of the season, there was a perception they could not add to it. And then once all the northern hemisphere sides went down to the southern hemisphere it was incredibly tough and I think it’s been brilliant.

“It’s been a different flavour, you have to deal with altitude, with winter, with summer, and I think it’s just generally good for the competition. It will be excellent for European rugby next season.”

Mindful that the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls have all qualified for next season's Champions Cup, Van Graan added: "I don't think a lot of teams from England and France realise they might have to go to Loftus Versfeld next year on the weekend of the 16th of December, and teams might have to go to Durban in January, with the heat and humidity. It will be brilliant going forward."