Updated May 16th 2018, 8:00 AM
THERE IS A distinctly unfinished feel to Munster’s season.
Losing a semi-final, another one, would be a bitterly disappointing way to end this campaign.
And yet, that’s how the bookmakers see Saturday’s Pro14 semi-final clash against the newly crowned European champions unfolding.
Even with injury to Robbie Henshaw, a knock to Jonathan Sexton and the emotional comedown from a big dig in Bilbao apparently accounted for, Leinster are eight-point favourites for the Saturday clash which brings Munster to the RDS for the first time since 2009.
Yet head coach Johann van Graan set the tone nicely on Monday with his own take on the to-be-the-man-you-gotta-beat-the-man Ric Flair-ism, and he sustained that tone a few minutes later when queried about how he might quash doubts in his squad when they go toe-to-toe with the European champions.
“I don’t need to convince them. They believe it,” said Van Graan while Peter O’Mahony waited quietly in the wings.
“This is a club that believes in themselves. We cannot control the opposition, in this case it is Leinster, and while we give them all the credit that is due, the players believe it themselves.”
Weighing down hard against that Munster belief are their most recent performances.
Racing showed in Bilbao that they can stymie anyone, but getting blown away in that first half in Bordeaux left an indelible mark on the southern province. The Pro14 ‘quarter-final’ at home to Edinburgh was billed as a bounce-back, but a magical intervention from Simon Zebo was required to keep the Scots at arm’s length.
Munster need to click, need to put together a performance from start to finish and boil up a few doubts in an uber-confident Leinster outfit.
“I think we did manage to play a few times against Edinburgh. Our execution let us down once or twice,” Van Graan contends, citing the positives of the Pro14 playoff win.
We’ll do what works well for us, focus on our kicking game and our set-piece and once a few opportunities present themselves we’ll definitely look to take them.
“When you play opponents like that you’ve got to take yourself out of your comfort zone as well. We’re going to look to do that and hopefully put in a good performance on Saturday.”
He adds: “They’re a team that don’t seem to focus too much on emotion and that’s a sign of a really good team.
“So your set-piece needs to function, your decision-making especially between the two 10-metre lines, I think that’s where they cause a lot of havoc to teams. They’re pretty good defensively when they concede momentum, they fan out and put 13 guys in the frontline so you have to make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of their defence.”
After reeling off the sensational seasons enjoyed by Dan Leavy and Sexton, Van Graan concludes Leinster have ‘no apparent weaknesses’. So it will be a matter of creating weakness by applying pressure.
Clearly Conor Murray is a master at doing just that, but Ian Keatley’s difficulties against Racing have brought the out-half question bubbling back up to the surface. The Ireland international was then left on the bench throughout the far-from-perfect win over Edinburgh while JJ Hanrahan held the reins.
Van Graan praised the Kerryman’s performance and pointed out that he is not in the habit of changing his 10 when matches are in the melting pot. So it’s unclear whether he will again place his trust in Hanrahan or stick with the experienced half-back combination which has guided Munster all season long.
“I thought JJ did pretty well against Edinburgh. I thought he’s played well over the last seven weeks.
“In the big games, I didn’t make a lot of changes at 10 and at nine. The Toulon game, Keats played for 80 minutes so I don’t like to change the nine and 10 too much in big games.
“Whoever we go with on the weekend, we back that nine and 10 and if the game situation lends it towards that then we’ll make a change. But whoever we select this week we believe it’s the right thing for this game.”
The weekend just past is one that no player wants to have free, but it has at least allowed Munster to recuperate in body and mind, freshen up and set the runway towards Saturday’s must-win clash in the RDS.
Having felt the tide of opinion flow this way and that during the course of the two-match tour of South Africa which preceded the Champions Cup semi-final, Van Graan is reserving judgement over what constitutes ideal preparation for a season-defining inter-pro.
“I will tell you on Saturday afternoon after the game,” Van Graan says with a smile, “it is very difficult to predict these things. Sometimes you want to keep playing and sometimes you want to have a break.
“Leinster had a rest a week earlier. Bodies (in Munster’s squad) have had the benefit of rest for two or three days, which always helps.
“Maybe the mind also benefits from getting away from the game for two or three days.
“Like I said before, we wanted to be in a different country for the weekend, but it wasn’t to be.
“We were in Ireland and hopefully we will be staying in Ireland for an additional week.”
A season ending before 26 May would just feel wrong for a Munster group with as much talent as points to prove.