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Van Graan's Munster must find the quality to close gap on Europe's very best

‘We always want to improve our squad and our team,’ said Munster boss Johann van Graan.

AS MUNSTER DEPARTED the Paris La Défense Arena yesterday evening, setting off on their journey back to Ireland, there was still a party happening out on the pitch at what is a truly unique stadium.

Within minutes of the final whistle of Racing’s 39-22 victory, one of the 22s had been cordoned off for a disco to get going – full lights show, blaring tunes, a couple of bars and all.

conor-murray-after-the-game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In a way, the slightly bizarre glamour of it all summed up the difference between the clubs. Racing’s fondness for a bit of ‘show-bizz‘ sometimes disguises their on-field ambitions, but it also underlines the sheer wealth of the club in comparison to Munster. 

That same financial power has allowed them to assemble a cast of stars including the sometimes unstoppable Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Finn Russell, and Juan Imhoff. Those men all made their mark in the crucial closing 10 minutes of the Champions Cup contest as Racing overpowered and outclassed Munster to score three late tries.

That those scores came after Munster had entered the closing 10 minutes 22-20 ahead will be the biggest frustration. For all the differences between the clubs in terms of spending power, Munster were in position to win this one.

They were in a decent position to beat Racing at home too, as well as take more from the back-to-back clashes with Saracens, but when the margins were fine in this very tough Pool 4, Munster came out on the wrong side of things. Facing the reigning champions in Sarries and two-time finalists in Racing was always going to be very demanding.

They still have a slim chance of advancing into the quarter-finals if they earn a bonus-point against Ospreys in Thomond Park next weekend, Saracens lose to Racing at home, and other results go their way, but that is very unlikely.

Instead, it seems the reality will be focusing back in on the Pro14, striving to top their conference and earn a home semi-final to set them on course for a better seeding for next season’s European draw, therefore reducing the chances of a similarly difficult pool.

The question now is how Munster will make up the gap ahead of next season.

Having Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne fit and healthy would help, of course, while the incoming Springbok pair of Damian de Allende and RG Snyman should lift them notably. Munster look like they need a few stars in these biggest, toughest fixtures.

johann-van-graan Van Graan will hope for better in Europe next season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

One can imagine Snyman battering over the top of a defender and offloading before de Allende makes another dent in the defence, then Carbery uses his footwork to dance to a linebreak. Munster can at least look forward to that.

“We always want to improve our squad and our team and I would say every player gave it everything they have got,” said head coach Johann van Graan yesterday.

“I am never a man to make excuses but unfortunately one or two guys are injured at this stage.

“For 71 minutes we did incredibly well out there today. But that last nine minutes and that finish there for Teddy Thomas, sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce for you and it didn’t in the last few minutes but we will regroup, get back home and go again next Sunday [against the Ospreys].

“We might get lucky, we might sneak in off the back end. The only thing we can control is our performance at Thomond Park next Sunday and I would like to believe we will perform like we did tonight.

“I think the complexion changes, then there is four weeks where a lot of guys go to the Six Nations and there is the Pro14 and then a break again and it is into the back end of the season and fixture-wise we have a massive amount of fixtures in April and May.”

In the short-term Munster will rue their inability to score tries, with their only five-pointer yesterday coming from an Andrew Conway intercept. They created little else apart from the five-metre chance from which Chris Farrell was held up.

Right now, it feels like Munster are some distance off the genuine quality that the likes of Racing, Saracens, Leinster, and Exeter possess. Frustratingly, it looks like there will be a long wait for their next shot at closing the gap in Europe next season.

juan-imhoff-celebrates-his-try-with-team-mates Racing had too much quality for Munster late on. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“This group has always had huge belief and you talk financially but we always have something different in that we have a huge group of players who have come from the province and who have come through our academy system,” said captain Peter O’Mahony yesterday.

“It always has made a difference and we’ve always complemented that by signing some excellent players from overseas and we have that mix now, and that’s always a dangerous mix, the guys who we have here and signing well, which we have done.”

“That’s what makes our club special, what I’ve just said… They didn’t all come from Racing. It’s a different dynamic. We need to change some things. We need to do things better. We need to take our chances, that’s the 15 guys on the pitch.

“It’s a different ball game if you score after 60 minutes and you go nine points ahead. They’re chasing a little bit and as you see when you chase a game you can make mistakes against guys like that and they punish you straight away.”

“There’s little improvements that we can make that will make us better next weekend, not next season. So that’s our focus now.” 

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Murray Kinsella

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