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Munster have 'massive room for improvement' ahead of Exeter showdown

Johann van Graan is pleased with the confidence within his group.

Murray Kinsella reports from Kingsholm

THE AWAY FANS, often cautious of open optimism, had a sense that Munster’s visit to Kingsholm on Friday night was going to go only one way.

Canvassing the red army, who travelled in their thousands to Gloucester, the feeling was that Johann van Graan’s side were in fine fettle to secure a crucial away win.

Keith Earls celebrates scoring with Conor Murray Munster celebrate Keith Earls' try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And so it proved, although perhaps in more convincing fashion than anyone had foreseen, with Joey Carbery pulling the strings and Munster’s pack dominating physically in a 41-15 bonus-point victory.

The feeling of momentum around Munster last week was hard to ignore. Positivity and energy abounded in their high performance centre at the University of Limerick after back-to-back wins over Leinster and Connacht.

The first of those, against Leinster, was a mental fillip, while the victory over Connacht in Galway was perhaps Munster’s performance of the season before Friday night – a boost to their tactical, physical and technical belief.

This display at Kingsholm, notoriously tricky to go to and sometimes more testing on a Friday night, underlined that Munster are on the rise and the exciting aspect is that van Graan believes there is more to come.

“There is massive room for improvement,” said the Munster boss in Gloucester. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. It’s a very good away win in Europe, but it’s only the third week of January now and there is a long way to go in this competition.

“We will have to play well next weekend and get a result to get to a quarter-final. But we want to take it week-to-week and improve. I think over the last 12 weeks we have improved week-on-week. We don’t always get the result, but we are improving.

“Small things like goal-kicking, which might have left us down last season or even in Castres away, guys are working really hard on that.

Billy Holland celebrates with Gerry Murray after the game Billy Holland with Conor Murray's father, Gerry. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Even our breakdown work tonight. I thought our forward ball carriers came at depth and we held our feet. When like Killer [Dave Kilcoyne] and [Stephen] Archer are making good passes and good decisions it shows growth, but the try before half-time [from Rory Scannell] also shows that you have to toughen up and just go forward.

“There were also a lot of things we weren’t happy with. How we started – we lost that kick-off and just after half-time, we had a plan. [The restart] didn’t quite go 10 metres and we spent 10 minutes in our own half.

“There is always room for improvement but you have to enjoy the win as well and then start again on zero on Monday.” 

The five match points mean Munster are four ahead of second-placed Exeter after the English side’s own bonus-point victory at home against Castres yesterday, teeing up Saturday’s clash between van Graan’s side and the Chiefs at Thomond Park beautifully.

If Exeter win in Limerick and deny Munster a losing bonus point, they will top the pool on account of a better head-to-head record. A bonus-point win for the Chiefs would obviously also see them top the pool unless Munster can get two losing bonus points.

For Munster, though, the outlook is simple – win and they secure their quarter-final.

“Exeter at home, it’s a team that I respect so much,” said van Graan. “I’ve said it before, the way they play and conduct themselves it’s a fantastic club. What better way to set things up than Munster v Exeter at our home ground, already sold out.

“We’ve played them before, it was a gale force wind on that day with two different halves – one of defence and one of attack. I think this will be a totally different game at Thomond.”

Among the reasons for Munster to be confident is the ever-growing class of Carbery, who had a 26-point haul against Gloucester and showed several thrilling touches of skill and vision in the victory.

Keith Earls and Peter O'Mahony celebrate as Rory Scannell scores their second try Peter O'Mahony celebrates as Rory Scannell scores. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But much of the good work Carbery did was founded on the excellence of the pack in front of him, with every member of the forwards shining for Munster.

“I said to the team beforehand that we’re getting tighter in all facets of play,” said van Graan. “We’re striking a good balance, we scored some lovely tries but our D was good.

“Look, when you come up against GG [Gerbrandt Grobler], Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. We spent a lot of time… all credit to Jerry [Flannery] and the forwards, we worked so hard on it.

“We know that one lineout steal, the one that Billy [Holland] stole, is big in the game. It’s sometimes bigger than a set of D. I thought we scrummed well tonight… I’ll take it.”

Interestingly, van Graan said that Chris Cloete “could have played tonight” after recovering from a neck injury, but “felt that Tommy [O'Donnell] did very well the previous week and I felt the combination worked well.”

With Peter O’Mahony popping a rib, Cloete may be required to come into the team, although Munster will wait for further assessment on the captain before making a call.

Either way, there is clear confidence floating around this Munster squad as van Graan’s vision for the province begins to become clear.

Dave Kilcoyne poses for pictures with fans after the game Dave Kilcoyne with Munster fans in Kingsholm. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I said it earlier in the season, after the pre-season, we kind of reset where we want to go to and what we want to play like as a team,” said van Graan. “Since the first round [of the Pro14] against the Cheetahs, I thought we were composed.

“We had some bumps across the way, but we are a confident group. We would like to believe we are on a journey to somewhere. We are a way off that yet, but we will take it week-for-week, start on zero every week and stay focused on this week.

“The confidence in a team comes from hard work, and on and off the field we are working hard. We haven’t achieved anything yet. We are top of our pool at this stage, we will enjoy it and move on again next week.” 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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