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Munster and Holland feel they're no longer 'a little bit one-dimensional'

Tipperary totem Donnacha Ryan will be targeting Munster’s lineout on Sunday in France.

SUNDAY SHOULD PROVIDE us with the truest barometer yet in judging whether Munster have developed over the last 12 months.

There was an in-season change in head coach during this campaign, with Johann van Graan taking over from Rassie Erasmus, although that potential upheaval seemed to be managed with comfort.

The win over Toulon in the recent quarter-finals was certainly impressive and it was built on longstanding Munster strengths – territorial gain, brutal defence – as well as involving a stunning individual try from Andrew Conway to seal their Champions Cup progress.

Billy Holland celebrates after the game Billy Holland celebrates Munster's quarter-final win over Toulon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While that formula might work again versus Racing 92 in Bordeaux, the sense is that Munster will need a little more.

Can their collective attack fire a year on from the disappointing and dull performance with ball in hand against Saracens in that semi-final defeat? Can the less experienced members of the squad deliver more under the intense pressure of a semi-final?

“I personally feel we are in a better place,” says second row Billy Holland, the oldest player in the squad at 32. “I think we have added a few strings to our bow this season, I think maybe we were a little bit one-dimensional at times [last season].

“I think from an experience point of view how many guys of the 23 had played in a European semi-final? There are [now] another 20 fellas who have experience of playing in a semi-final and the pressures of it.

“You’d like to think you’re further down the line but the proof is in the pudding. We’ll know more on Sunday night are we a better team than we were this time last year or are we still a little bit off it.”

The affable Holland is never anything less than honest and he points out that this trophy-less Munster squad must learn from their defeats in last season’s Pro14 final, the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens and even the 2015 Pro12 final versus Glasgow.

Being that close to success and failing has been frustrating for so many in this Munster group, meaning this opportunity in Europe feels even more exciting.

“Keith Earls is the only man involved who has played in a European final,” says Holland. “Personally, it would mean the world to me – I suppose the older you get the more you realise how difficult it is to get to this stage of a competition.

Billy Holland Holland believes Munster have moved on in the 12 months since a semi-final defeat to Saracens. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“In the week that’s in it, you are not going to try and get too emotional, too caught up in how great the euphoria would be. From a personal point of view, I have dreams of winning a European Cup but you cannot sit there and dream about it.

“You have to focus on the technical side of things to help get us that step further than we were last year.”

One of the key men standing in Munster’s way on Sunday will be Racing lock Donnacha Ryan, who spent his entire career with the southern province before the move to France last summer.

The 34-year-old has been typically excellent throughout Racing’s fine campaign and he will be going after Munster’s lineout again as part of a ferocious effort from the French side out of touch.

“I think in that game we had eight lineouts and we won seven,” says Holland of the sides’ last meeting in Paris in January, when Racing won 34-30. “Donnacha knows our lineout system as well as I know it.

“It’s been around for a few years and he knows how it works, but you can’t change things for one game. We’ve had it for years. We make subtle little changes maybe, but you can’t go around re-inventing the wheel.

“If you do, I’m confusing myself along with the other seven forwards out there. So you’ve just got to back what you’ve done in your line-outs so far. Does he have an advantage, and do Racing have an advantage in comparison to other teams? Yes, they do.

“They have a perfect insight into what we do, but you just end up confusing yourself too much if you try and double-bluff them, for want of a better word.”

Donncha Ryan with Duncan Williams and Billy Holland Duncan Williams, Ryan and Holland after the pool defeat to Racing. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

So, no changes to Munster’s lineout system but Holland and co. will surely feel they have a sense of what Ryan will be up to on both teams’ throws.

Getting to battle with the Tipperary man again is something Munster are looking forward to.

“He’s tough,” says Holland. “Everyone knows what Donnacha is like. In the 75th minute, he comes out of nowhere and steals a restart. He doesn’t give up. I think he’s brought an added level of doggedness to Racing.

“They’ve always been a quality side but I think they’ve gotten fitter and I think they have a never-say-die attitude, and you’ve seen that in a couple of their games this year, and particularly when he’s been playing.

“Myself and Pete [O'Mahony] and a few of the lads would be very good friends with Donnacha and there was so much respect there. There was no having a go off each other. We didn’t even look at each other during the game.

“We respect each other too much, and he came into the dressing-room afterwards and we shared a beer, and hopefully we’ll be doing the same this weekend with the result the opposite way around. But he’s a tough opponent. I wouldn’t fancy playing him every week.”

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Murray Kinsella

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