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Munster set off for South Africa with a Champions Cup semi-final to come

The belief in Munster’s squad has been greatly boosted by their win over Toulon at Thomond Park.

JOHANN VAN GRAAN and his Munster squad set off for South Africa today on a two-game Guinness Pro14 mini-tour in which they take on the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, but the Champions Cup will never be far from their minds.

When Munster land back in Ireland on Sunday 15 April, they will be looking into a European semi-final week for the second year in a row.

Peter O'Mahony celebrates after the game Peter O'Mahony after Munster's win over Toulon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Away to Racing 92 in Bordeaux this time, the southern province will be hoping to go at least one step further than their semi-final exit to Saracens in 2017. Who knows what will happen if Munster do manage to reach the decider?

Travelling to South Africa has advantages and disadvantages. It could be physically taxing for van Graan’s players, and it’s something he was acutely aware of in the wake of Saturday’s rousing 20-19 quarter-final win against Toulon.

“It’s an interesting scenario. When I took the job it was one of the first things that I saw,” said the Munster head coach.

“At that stage, getting to a quarter-final was a long way away. To play in a quarter-final, hopefully win it, fly to South Africa, play two away games in the Pro14 – one at altitude – and then fly back and go into a European semi-final was always going to be, if you think about it, it looked tough. Now, it’s a reality.

“We’ve planned for it, we’ve said we’re going to enjoy the tour even though nobody has even spoken a word about it. We’ll just get to South Africa now and re-assess once we get there.

“Get back to zero, play two games there whilst having a big eye back north for when we come back for that semi.”

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony, meanwhile, said the dramatic victory over Toulon will “certainly make the next two weeks more enjoyable” for Munster in South Africa.

He can see some benefit in being removed from any hype in what will now be a long build-up to the clash with Racing for Munster’s supporters.

Munster players celebrate as referee Nigel Owens awards a penalty to finish the game Munster celebrate the final turnover penalty. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“That is a good way of looking at it – it is intense around Limerick and Cork, all over the province. You have everyone coming up to wish you well and it is nice to be able to step back from it, keep your head down and work hard over in South Africa,” said O’Mahony.

Aside from the result against Toulon itself, the nature of the performance from Munster will add to the pep in their step over the next few weeks.

O’Mahony underlined his awareness that Munster had benefited from luck with regards to a handful of refereeing decisions – “I wouldn’t say we got all the moments, we got some of the moments. You need a bit of luck as well in these games which we got at times” – but he was more focused on what his side had done well.

Chief among the impressive performers were Munster’s midfield pair of Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold, who largely negated the power of Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud and Malakai Fekitoa in an outstanding defensive display.

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“From when I announced the team, I called Sam and Rory in and I said to them both, ‘it’s not about who you’re playing against, it’s about you,’” said van Graan of his centres.

“It’s interesting how life works out, from the first game I was involved in against Zebre, Sam and Rory were the centres and against Leicester in December and I said ‘life works out the way it should and you two in the 12 and 13 Munster jerseys, I don’t want anything special, just do what you normally do’ and I thought they were incredible.

“That defence, I’ll have to watch the game tonight when I get home. What can I say? Special.”

Van Graan believes Scannell and Arnold’s confidence will “sky-rocket” in the wake of their display, while Andrew Conway underlined his class with a superb showing on his return from a knee injury – capped off with the stunning winning try.

Andrew Conway runs in a try Andrew Conway scorches away to score. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“A great Munster man, he’s actually my neighbour,” said van Graan. “To come through such a long injury, he wasn’t, by his own standards, that sharp in training this week. He’s one of the guys who regularly says ‘I just want the ball’.

“It’s interesting the way rugby games work out, the ball went to him and it will go down as one of the all-time great plays of Munster. You’ve just got to look at his face, he was in a real battle. It was an incredible try.”

The Munster show is on the road to South Africa now, but that semi-final is the key part of their planning.

Two Pro14 wins between now and then would be a nice way of maintaining momentum, for both the championship and Europe, and there is growing belief in Munster’s squad that they can compete for the Champions Cup trophy.

“We need to be in the right frame of mind,” said O’Mahony. “That was probably our best performance of the year, certainly defensively. And if we want to win the semi-final, it’s going to have to be a step up again.

“Guys have to understand that and it is not always easy to do. These performances take a lot of guys, a huge amount, not just physically, but emotionally, the whole lot.

“So guys have to have the ability to recover and play once, if not twice over the next couple of weeks and then get themselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready for the next biggest game of their career.”

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Murray Kinsella

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