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'A huge battle' - Munster eager to shake off Ulster defeat as Connacht showdown looms

Another crucial inter-pro derby awaits Johann van Graan’s side this weekend.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan.
Munster head coach Johann van Graan.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

AS TENDS TO be the case over the festive period with visiting interprovincial sides, the relative strength of the Munster side that pitched up at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night was up for debate in post-match.

Despite not playing against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day after the Dublin province’s coronavirus uncertainty, Johann van Graan headed to Ulster with only two of his Irish internationals in tow – Shane Daly and John Ryan – and three Academy players in the matchday squad.

In the end, the tenacity and vigour of that squad was good enough to earn them a losing bonus point against a relatively full-strength Ulster outfit when Darren Sweetnam went over with the final play to salvage a 15-10 loss in Belfast, which keeps them eight points clear at the top of Conference B of the Guinness Pro14 and well on course for a final berth in April.

Chris Cloete had a sublime game at openside. Liam Coombes had a sharp edge about him on the wing. The bench – props Dave Kilcoyne, on his return from injury, and Roman Salanoa in particular – added some real bite late on to rescue that point, while Ireland U20′s fly-half Jack Crowley kicked a conversion on his debut.

But beyond the enforced player management dictated by the IRFU, there were arguably more selection questions that arose. Could, for instance, the increasingly impressive Gavin Coombes or Springbok star Damian de Allende played after not going 80 minutes a week prior? Both could have made a significant difference.

“We want to win every game we play in and we selected a side we believed were good enough to win here. You just have to see the players in the changing room to see how disappointed they were that we didn’t win this game,” retorted Van Graan.

It’s an incredibly long season and we’ve already used 46 players, with Jack Crowley making his debut there.

“I said at the start of the season I’m going to back our whole squad and I believe that they are sticking up their hands and we came to within one score against the team that played in the final last year.

“Look, like I said, it was a big-pressure game and also credit to our opposition. [Ulster] haven’t lost here for two years in the league and if you look at both the European games, they played against Toulouse and only narrowly lost and they were up by 10 against Gloucester with only a few minutes to go so we played a quality outfit, we know that.

munster-and-ulster-players-after-the-game Munster and Ulster players after their clash at the weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I felt it was a close-fought Irish derby.”

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Although there are plenty of positives for the Munster coaching staff to take back down the road to Limerick, the bare facts say that their unbeaten record this season has unfortunately come to an end and, after Connacht’s heroics at the RDS Arena, their Conference B lead has been slashed by four points.

It makes this week’s meeting between the top two sides at the Sportsground all the more important, Munster knowing that victory over their nearest rivals will put one foot firmly in the final but defeat would suddenly have them nervously looking over their shoulders.

“I’ve said since Covid started we just live day by day and we take it week by week,” added Van Graan, who confirmed that anybody not injured would be eligible for selection in Galway.

Obviously you make your plans but you’ve got to have the ability to adapt. Obviously Connacht are in our Conference and a few points behind us and a quality side, specifically in Galway, so that will be a huge battle.

“We want to do well in both competitions that we play in and we are alive in Europe and we have a massive game against Clermont the week after Connacht and then Quins away so you’ve also got to balance that.

“But, at the end of the day, we’ll just take it week by week because that’s the only thing we’re guaranteed of, is the game that we had tonight.”

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