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Champions Cup rugby: Four players and a coach with plenty to prove this weekend

For differing reasons, the focus will be on Johann van Graan, Johnny Sexton, Jack Crowley, Finlay Bealham and Nathan Doak over the next 48 hours.

Point to prove: Johann van Graan.
Point to prove: Johann van Graan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

1: Johann van Graan

AT SOME POINT when autumn gave way to winter, the debate about Stephen Kenny’s future ended and the one surrounding Johann van Graan began.

For some, the van Graan reign has been tedious, Keith Wood using the word ‘turgid’ to describe Munster’s recent performance against Connacht. You could say Wood was being generous.

You can’t blame Wood, or anyone, for criticising a head coach. The South African wasn’t conscripted into the profession, after all. No, the reality is that once you choose this life, a good salary and a thick skin become part of the job spec. However, when you look in from the outside, it’s pretty clear van Graan has two significant flaws, firstly the rugby Munster play isn’t terribly exciting but secondly, he isn’t one of the good ole boys.

What has become really noticeable about the recent analysis is this constant reminder of how good Munster used to be. Such frequent trips down nostalgia’s lane makes you think the Italia 90 syndrome has been transferred to Munster Rugby. Is their glorious past – from 1999 to 2011 – a nightmare rather than an inspiration to this group of players?

For the record, this present lot aren’t doing that badly – and nor is their coach. While praising van Graan too loudly comes with a health risk, we’re prepared to accept the abuse. As head coach, he has presided over victories against Exeter, Racing, Leicester, Toulon, Saracens, Clermont, even Leinster on a couple of occasions. Still, he faced calls for his head after the defeat in Connacht. It was just Munster’s second loss of the season.

Qualification for this season’s Champions Cup knock-out stages is practically guaranteed but even if they win away to Castres tonight, you have a fair idea how the victory will be framed, that Castres rarely show interest in Europe; that the French selected a weakened side.

Castres are hard to watch (even harder than Munster have been in recent weeks) but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to beat. They currently lie third in the Top14. Should Munster get a result, should van Graan’s Munster do so, then perhaps a little fairness should be brought into the discussion! Their coach has done a reasonable job, getting Munster to five semi-finals and a final in his four seasons – keeping them on course to reach the knock-outs in both Europe and the URC this time around.

That doesn’t mean they should commission a statue of him to be built outside Thomond Park. But a win tonight should mean an end to the debate about his immediate future.

2: Johnny Be Good

Remember Johnny Sexton, world player of the year in 2018, Leinster and Ireland captain, the inspiration behind the province’s 2011 Heineken Cup final comeback, the fulcrum of the teams that won four European Cups?

He’s on the bench on Sunday. If he comes off it, it’ll be his first taste of European action this season after managing just 28 minutes in the competition in 2020/21.

johnny-sexton-receives-medical-attention Sexton's last game for Leinster was in October. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With 176 appearances for the province, it’s fair to say Sexton has given Leinster some service. Should he do a Tom Brady on it and guide them in his old age to yet another major trophy, then it’ll even be fairer to suggest he is the club’s best ever player.

Yet there’s a reason why Ross Byrne has been selected ahead of him for the Montpellier game. Byrne has played 108 times for the club in the last five years, Sexton just 50 games. One is a stand-out legend, the other a stand-in, but the stand-in is the one the Leinster players are familiar with. His selection makes sense and serves as a reminder to Sexton, indeed everyone, that you always need to prove yourself, irrespective of how great your career has been.

3: Finlay Bealham

Up until a month ago, a preliminary shortlist to discuss Connacht’s player of the year would have contained the following names: frontrunner Mack Hansen, captain Jack Carty, Dave Heffernan, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver and Finlay Bealham. Then Welford Road happened and six names got cut to five.

That whole episode serves as a reminder that for all rugby’s intricacies, starter moves and trick plays, you can’t really do anything unless your scrum is functioning. Connacht’s didn’t that day away to Leicester.

Now we can’t pin the blame solely on Bealham for that. Their scrum continued to crumble after he left the field yet if there is one person who can fix the problem tomorrow, it’s their underrated Ireland tighthead.

This is why the No3s so often get the big dough.

If Connacht even get parity in the set-piece tomorrow, they’ll win, effectively securing their passage to the last 16. In more ways than one, there is a lot weighing on Bealham’s shoulders.

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a-general-view-of-a-scrum Leicester bossed matters in the scrum. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

4: Jack Crowley

Early in last week’s Ulster game, Jack Crowley was trying a little too hard. One ambitious kick went straight to touch; one ambitious run led to a turnover inside his own 22. He looked, to all intents and purposes, like a little boy lost.

But by half-time he came of age. Two nerveless penalties – critical scores when you consider Munster won by five – were complemented by a perfectly placed diagonal kick that pinned Ulster back to their five-metre line. In the space of an hour, he grew up in front of our eyes.

And yet this is a different test. Castres away is a fair bit more intimidating than fronting up in front of a reduced crowd in Thomond Park. Linked with a move to La Rochelle last year, Crowley now gets the chance to showcase his talents on French soil under different circumstances. Munster’s third choice ten needs to mature from promising new boy into the delivery man.

munsters-jack-crowley Crowley nailed two kicks before half-time.

5: Nathan Doak

On New Year’s Day, Munster were facing a side who’d lost their talisman. The same thing happened last week against Ulster.

On New Year’s Day, Munster’s maul defence failed to prevent a try. Again, different opposition but same problem last weekend.

What differed was what happened next. Three times Connacht had difficult but kickable penalties to stretch their lead in the final quarter. Each time they went for the corner, as Conor Fitzgerald – Jack Carty’s replacement – parked his ego and played the long game. In contrast, a week ago, when Ulster were leading 13-11, Nathan Doak’s youthful exuberance got the better of him. A 55m penalty was attempted as the clock ticked down towards the final five minutes. It fell short. So did Ulster’s hopes, ultimately, as they never got any territory after that failed kick.

The whole point of this is that there is a thin line between confidence and over-confidence. Doak is clearly the future, and could become the rugby equivalent of what NFL teams dub their franchise quarterback. He’s still plenty to learn, though. Sunday in Franklin’s Gardens will feel like a Masters degree.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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