Five points is what Munster need tonight - and five points is what they are going to get

Johann van Graan’s side take on Dragons in the URC at Thomond Park.

Munster celebrate their win over Edinburgh
Munster celebrate their win over Edinburgh
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

WHEN THE 2018/19 edition of the Pro14 was launched on one of those forgettable, grey Glasgow days, Johann van Graan made a subtle point about the direction he wanted his team to move in.

The previous season, his first in Thomond Park, had resulted in a couple of semi-final defeats, both suffered on the road, one in France, the other in the RDS.

He may have been taking baby steps in the head coaching business but already harsh lessons had been learned, namely that your regular season results directly correlate to your end-of-year status. “We lost two semi-finals last season,” van Graan said on that August day, “each of them away from home. Finish higher in our conference, secure a higher seeding in Europe; you stay at home for the semis. That’s what we’re after.”

And that’s what they are now capable of getting. With eight URC games remaining, four are at home; Dragons (tonight kick off 5.15pm, Live TG4, Premier Sports), Benetton, Leinster and Cardiff; and four away; Bulls, Lions, Ulster and Leinster.

Those road trips are all potentially hazardous but you can’t see many obstacles staring Munster in the face this evening. Despite starting the season impressively, scaring Leinster at Rodney Parade, beating Connacht in the Sportsground, Dragons have slipped back. Only Zebre have a lower points tally than them this season.

Still, this is the sort of game the Munster players who get left behind by Andy Farrell and Ireland take a pride in winning. Way back in 2018, you couldn’t read an article about the team without reference to their over-dependence on the big four: Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.

keith-earls-and-conor-murray Munster are better placed to cope without Murray and Earls. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

These days it’s different. Four years ago those poster boys were in the summer of their careers; now it’s autumn. Earls, at 34, has played only five games for Munster this season, scoring one try. The stats for Murray, 33 next month, are identical. In their absence, Munster have carried on winning, not in a swashbuckling way, but still.

Even if he leaves Munster without a trophy, one thing van Graan deserves credit for is the way he has built up their squad. The Leinster production line – or more to the point, Munster’s comparatively poor conveyor belt – has frequently been a stick to beat him with.

But look at the squad he’s picked today. Ten of them – Josh Wycherley, Jack Crowley, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Alex Kendellen, John Hodnett, Shane Daly, Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Gavin Coombes – all made their debut under van Graan and while you could say they would have emerged irrespective of who was in charge, that’d be disingenuous.

It might not be a trendy thing to say but van Graan has done alright for the province. They may be unspectacular to watch but their results are consistent, 11 of their 14 games ending in victory this season. At home they remain unbeaten even though there were Thomond Park days – Ulster, Connacht, Stormers – when they flirted with defeat.

johann-van-graan-speaks-to-the-media-after-the-game Van Graan has done a better job than he is credited for. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

That wasn’t the case a couple of weeks ago. Edinburgh were no match for them, just as you suspect Dragons won’t be this evening. These are the weeks when squad depth counts, these mid-season games when the injuries pile up and the internationals are away on Six Nations duty.

Munster are doing more than just coping. Some of them, Chris Farrell, Jack O’Donoghue especially, are playing with real attitude, their way of letting Andy Farrell know they are good enough to make his squad.

Casey and Coombes have been in his squad, of course, and are transferring their confidence from Irish HQ to Thomond Park. Both are playing well lately; indeed pretty much everyone played well against Edinburgh.

Dragons will be a similar test to the Scots and we can expect a similar result. This may seem like a nothing fixture but come the end of the season, these are the sort of run of the mill games that often separate second from third, determining which side gets a home semi-final and which one rings the travel agent to check out hotel rooms in a faraway town.

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So five points is what Munster need tonight. And five points is what they’ll get.

Munster: Mike Haley; Shane Daly, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Simon Zebo; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (CAPT), Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Alex Kendellen, John Hodnett, Neil Cronin, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell

Dragons: Jordan Williams, Will Talbot-Davies, Jack Dixon, Aneurin Owen, Rio Dyer, Sam Davies, Rhodri Williams; Greg Bateman, Taylor Davies, Chris Coleman, Joe Davies, Joe Maksymiw, Harri Keddie (CAPT), Ollie Griffiths, Aaron Wainwright.

Replacements: Ellis Shipp, Aki Seiuli, Mesake Doge, Huw Taylor, Ben Fry, Dan Baker, Lewis Jones, Josh Lewis

Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU, 19th league game)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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