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Munster's Van Graan: 'It's tough to take, I'm not going to lie, it's tough to take'

Munster have made some progress over the last three years – but Leinster remain way stronger.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE TINSEL DROPPED onto the shoulders of the Munster players like dandruff, greeted with disdain, instantly brushed away. Despite their discomfort, they respectfully stood there, as one by one the Leinster team made their way to the podium to collect the medals and the trophy.

It made for painful viewing, one team exultant, the other in the horrors; like the uninvited kid looking over the fence at a neighbour’s birthday party. If losing was bad, seeing your conquerors receiving their prize was worse. Just 20 yards separated the winners from the runners-up during this post-match ceremony; the closest Munster will get to a trophy for a while.

Certainly the Champions Cup draw hasn’t been kind. It’s Toulouse in the round of 16 this week, probably Clermont the next if they manage to jump the initial hurdle; after that the semis and final. Even Eddie Macken and Boomerang weren’t asked to clear jumps as tough as that.

“You don’t get over a loss like this too quickly,” said Johann Van Graan, their coach after Saturday’s 16-6 defeat to Leinster in the Pro14 final. “We’ve just got to deal with it, dust ourselves off and start again with Toulouse.”

If these words sound familiar well that’s because they are. This is what Van Graan had to say after their 2017/18 season ended in a pair of semi-final losses. “We want to improve our game, move it forward and perform in big games, and hopefully that will result in a trophy.”

billy-holland-dejected-walking-past-the-guinness-pro14-trophy Billy Holland passes the Pro14 trophy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And here he is again after losing to Leinster in the 2019 Pro14 semis: “Discipline was the difference. You can’t lose the penalty count to a team like them.” Fast forward to Saturday night – another season defining date with Leinster and another defeat. “They are quite clearly the better team. A lot of the things that we wanted to do we couldn’t, we literally didn’t get an opportunity.”

There are two ways at looking at this. One is to say that Van Graan seems destined to be a nearly man, the one who guided Munster to five semi-finals and a final – but lost the lot. Alternatively you could be kinder and point to the win over Clermont earlier this season and say progress is being made.

But there’s a problem. While it is all well and good to reach semi-finals of tournaments on a regular basis, Munster and Van Graan are not being compared to other European teams with a similar budget. 

Instead, it is the standards of the club’s past — as well as those being set by Leinster — they are judged by. Since his arrival in Limerick in November 2017, Van Graan has seen Leinster win four Pro14 titles and a Champions Cup while he only has to look at the club’s honours board to be reminded that the Munster of the Noughties collected five trophies (two Heineken Cups, a Celtic Cup, two Celtic Leagues) in that decade.

Burdened in the shadow of the club’s past, they’re also in danger of falling into a psychological trap. Irrespective of this being an era of excessive politeness, where coaches are mindful of how a stray comment can be offered as a free motivational tool to the opposition, there is an even greater danger of talking yourself into a negative place by dishing out too much praise to a rival. 

“We’ve got to keep chasing them and currently they are just too good for us,” said Van Graan. “What I would say on top of that comment is that they’re currently too good for everybody in the Pro14.

“I believe that we are the closest to them but once they go two scores up nobody catches them. We knew we were in trouble at 16-6 and if you look at those last five minutes, the more we wanted to play, the more they just shut you down. 

cj-stander-dejected-after-the-game No words needed: CJ Stander afterwards. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Give credit where credit’s due. I said to Leo (Cullen, Leinster coach) afterwards, ‘well done, you guys are the well-deserved champions and it’s up to everybody else to keep chasing you guys’. That’s the reality. It doesn’t help if you try and tell some fairy tale.”

Honest words and here’s some more. They’ve now lost a record six successive times to Leinster and in the third game of that sequence – last August – they ran them to just two points. Since then, Leinster have dictated the terms and conditions, particularly on Saturday when their stars performed and Munster’s barely showed up.

“In terms of commitment and preparation and the will to win, it was there,” said Van Graan. “The disappointment is that at 6-6 we had a real chance, they scored that try, went down 13-6 and now you are chasing.

“Like I said, we just couldn’t get access into their ’22 at that time, so it’s tough to take, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s tough to take, but that is just the position we are in and we just have to get through it again, get up and go.”

They don’t have a choice. While Leinster’s performance in the RDS on Saturday evening had confirmed something most people in rugby had already accepted, that the squad Cullen has built is way superior to his rivals, it doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to win every time they play.

Decades of evidence are available to show that sport has a habit of throwing up unexpected results. You only have to look at this year’s Six Nations championship to remind yourself of this.

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But for Munster, a breakthrough looks as far away as ever, especially as CJ Stander is set to retire while Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony move deeper into their 30s. None of the above impressed on Saturday.

The good news is there are other talented players who could brighten Thomond Park over the next couple of years.

Joey Carbery is one, even though he too was poor on Saturday; Craig Casey another. Gavin Coombes, Munster’s invaluably excellent flanker, can fill the Stander void while we’ve yet to see RG Snyman in a red shirt for more than seven minutes.

The addition of South Africa’s leading four franchises to the Pro14 will make the competition tougher to win, of course, but in the long-term the Wycherleys, the Coombes and the Healys have more of a chance of closing the gap to Leinster by facing this kind of quality rather than just punching in time against Zebre and Dragons.

The truth is they’ve made some progress, winning 14 of their 16 regular Pro14 season games this year which compares well to the 13-1-7 record in Van Graan’s first year, the 16 wins and five losses posted in his second, the 10 wins and five losses in his third. The harsher truth is that Leinster have progressed way more across the same timeframe.

“It’s all very well to try and play but aerially they dominated us, we couldn’t get a lot of clean ball into the air and the way they attack is really difficult to stop,” said Van Graan. “So from that point of view they made it virtually impossible for us. They are quite clearly the better team.”

And they are likely to remain so for some time. In the meantime, the best Van Graan can hope for is a shot at redemption in Europe. Stop Toulouse and people will look on him and his team in a much kinder light. Stopping Toulouse entails drawing up a plan to deal with Cheslin Kolbe, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. It better be a good one.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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