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'We don't want the starting XV to be comfortable, we've got a very good crop of youngsters'

Munster’s Johann van Graan expects the likes of Craig Casey, John Hodnett, and Ben Healy to push for European starts.

JOHANN VAN GRAAN says Munster are ready to back the emerging homegrown talent coming through the province’s academy ranks as they look to finally get over their semi-final hurdle in the 2020/21 season.

The southern province came up short at the final-four stage once again earlier this month when they lost 13-3 to Leinster in the delayed 2019/20 Pro14 semi-finals.

While Munster have faced criticism in recent years for not producing more homegrown players, there is no doubting the talent currently coming through their pipeline.

munsters-craig-casey Craig Casey has been applying pressure on Conor Murray. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Limerick scrum-half Craig Casey is a fine example, with the 21-year-old having put pressure on Conor Murray in recent times. With Murray sidelined with a thigh injury, Casey looks likely to start this weekend’s Pro14 opener against Scarlets in Wales and van Graan hopes to see further pressure applied to Murray and his other senior players.

“That’s massive for the squad, one of our big aims is to improve the squad year on year and we don’t want the starting XV to be comfortable,” said van Graan yesterday.

“Someone like Craig has really been pushing, he’s pushed Neil [Cronin] and Nick [McCarthy] along as well.

“At the weekend [in the pre-season friendly win over Connacht], Craig was excellent. He definitely picked up the tempo of the game, he is very good with his communication and demands a lot of his forwards.

“That will certainly be a big battle for the number nine jersey in the coming years at Munster.”

But Casey isn’t the only promising youngster in the Munster ranks and van Graan highlighted a number of other as he stressed his belief that his squad is now better than ever.

“We believe that we have got a very good crop of youngsters coming through that will not only play in these games but perform in these games,” said van Graan. “Because there is a big difference between being selected and actually performing in a big game.

john-hodnett Van Graan says John Hodnett will push for European starts. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Somebody like, I don’t want to name-drop certain guys, but someone like John Hodnett will definitely come close to our starting European team, someone like Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Jack Crowley, and Jake Flannery.

“We’ve added to the squad with Roman Salanoa, Keynan Knox is a year further along the line, Matt Gallagher is with the team, someone like Liam Coombes performed on the weekend.

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“You have got guys who can be really special players but need a bit more time, someone like Thomas Ahern. We believe that we are improving not only the academy group but the squad. So we’d like to believe from a playing group that we’re better equipped a year on.”

These are exciting words for Munster fans but the onus will be on van Graan and his coaching staff to follow through and give these promising youngsters ample opportunities to learn and develop in prominent fixtures.

While van Graan is keen to look forward now, it’s clear that Munster need to learn the lessons of their latest semi-final defeat to Leinster.

Van Graan and his coaching staff came in for widespread criticism after their game plan in that defeat focused heavily on box-kicking, with Munster failing to show anything of note with ball in hand.

However, the Munster boss said their review highlighted missed chances and a poor lineout performance as the most relevant factors, although he did admit that his team aren’t good enough at dealing with the challenges of knock-out rugby.

johann-van-graan Van Graan's Munster face Scarlets this weekend. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We missed some crucial opportunities between minutes 50 and 65. Had we taken those, it might have been a different result but factually it wasn’t, we lost the game 13-3.

“We learned a lot from the Pro14 final and then the European quarter-final. You can read into that what you like,” continued van Graan, seemingly hinting that Ulster and Saracens’ successes in the air against Leinster underlined why Munster’s game plan had focused on that area.

“For us, we didn’t use our opportunities well enough. Yes, we could have done certain parts of our game better. Our lineout didn’t function in that particular game, we had the best lineout in the Pro14 so we had to look at why.

“From an inside perspective, we came up against a team who had two weeks of preparation and we had five days and limited training time. We’ll never use that as an excuse, we haven’t done. But those things all come out in a review.

“We’ve got to look at what teams do in knock-out rugby, currently we are not good enough at knock-out rugby at this stage.”

Originally published at 06.00

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Murray Kinsella

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