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'You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning'

Munster boss Johann van Graan is excited for his first knock-out game in charge of the province.

“YOU WANT TO go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning and everyone is ready to go.

“Saying things like ‘put your body on the line’ or ‘work rate off the ball,’ that gets tested in games like Saturday’s. That’s what Munster is about.”

It’s very easy to dismiss some of Johann van Graan’s statements as clichéd rubbish, but the Munster head coach very visibly feels what he is saying.

Johann van Graan Van Graan is excited about the challenge ahead this weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Reading the words above might make some people roll their eyes, but watching van Graan speak them at Munster’s high performance centre in Limerick yesterday with the hint of tears forming in his eyes, it was hard to do so.

When he’s asked how Munster will mentally approach what looks like a very difficult task against Toulon in the Champions Cup quarter-final on Saturday, with injuries depriving them of a crop of key players, van Graan is clearly moved emotionally by this challenge.

“The Munster way,” is his reply. “Rugby games are won in the hearts of men. [We will] back the people of Munster to pull us through. I get goosebumps when I say things like this but sport is about doing the unthinkable, about going to where other teams aren’t prepared to go.

“When you say things like this, you really do respect the opposition because you know they might take you apart. But rugby games are 50-50 occasions, it’s the same for both teams.”

This is as big a week for van Graan as anyone else involved, although he sometimes insists that Munster’s fixtures are not about him.

It is a first European knock-out game as a head coach for the 38-year-old and the opportunity is as exciting as it is daunting.

“Most definitely,” says van Graan. “You want to be part of something bigger than yourself, you want to be part of huge games. I was part of a World Cup semi-final, it was big, Super Rugby finals, but this is huge.

“Even when the final whistle went on Saturday evening [after Munster's win over the Scarlets] you went ‘Ok, this is it’.

“This is knockout rugby now, this is why you coach and this is why you’re part of rugby, for days like Saturday.”

Niall Scannell Munster trained in UL yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Van Graan’s hope of starting his knock-out experiences with Munster in winning fashion have been dealt some rather serious blows with the aforementioned injuries.

Tommy O’Donnell is the latest to have been ruled out, following Tyler Bleyendaal, Chris Farrell, Jaco Taute, Duncan Williams, Keith Earls and Chris Cloete.

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Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway remain “50-50″ to feature this weekend and need to make a return to full training by tomorrow if they are to have a chance of making it.

Centre Rory Scannell, meanwhile, must complete the return-to-play protocols this week after suffering a concussion against the Scarlets, meaning several concerns for van Graan and his coaching staff.

The back row conundrum is a key one, with opensides Cloete and O’Donnell both missing, but van Graan is convinced there is more than enough quality in his squad to adapt.

“I see it as a massive positive,” says the Munster boss. “We’ve got some really good options: CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony coming back, we’ve got Jack O’Donoghue who has played some fantastic rugby.

“Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver and Robin Copeland, who has been unbelievable. I said to him after that performance over the weekend, he did some things that very few players in the world can do. It’s great to have these options available.”

Van Graan pointed out that stopping Toulon’s threats – he highlighted their close-range maul from five-man lineouts as an example – has played a major role in Munster’s thinking regarding the selection in their back row.

Toulon’s seven-try, 49-0 victory over Clermont in the Top 14 on Sunday didn’t change anything about Munster’s preparation, but “just confirmed the enormous task that awaits us.”

Johann van Graan and Felix Jones Van Graan with assistant coach Felix Jones. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Van Graan is determined for his side not to be bullied in the physical exchanges but understands that Munster cannot avoid that battle either.

“I think you’ve got to pick your fights. Just in terms of the laws of physics, they’re just bigger than us so you need to find ways to outmanoeuvre them in certain areas.

“Unfortunately, this is a collision game, you need to win collisions, you need to win body height and body fight against them. You’ve got use your fitness and move them around.

“All of those things sound very nice but you’ve got to actually do it against world-class opposition. We’ll go about our business quietly and we’ll wait for Saturday afternoon.”

While the returning Grand Slam-winning trio of Stander, O’Mahony and Conor Murray will lead the way for Munster, van Graan sees this game as a chance for some of the less heralded players in his squad to stand out – particularly due to the injuries.

“That’s what dreams are made of,” says van Graan. “I haven’t heard about a lot of heroes that were born in times of peace.”

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Murray Kinsella

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