Van Graan: 'I am not going to moan about scoring four forward tries in the second half'

Munster are moving forward even if it is not at the pace that so many pundits would like.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE WAY THINGS are shaping up, it is beginning to look as though Johann Van Graan is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

If Munster lose, especially if it is to Leinster again, then he’s going to get it in the neck.

On the other hand if they were to win by throwing the ball wildly around the park then the first reference point in everyone’s homework journal will be to praise Stephen Larkham, the highly-regarded but possibly over-rated coach, who Van Graan brought in from Australia.

Saturday saw a third scenario painted. Munster won, and in the end by a convincing margin, and did so against decent opposition who will take some scalps as this season evolves, especially when European teams head south to Cape Town.

Yet they didn’t win playing Barbarians-type rugby. In fact, they won by playing the old-fashioned Munster-type, fighting fearlessly for scraps of possession in the middle third, winning penalties, kicking those penalties to the corner, winning their line-out, mauling the Stormers to death, scoring five tries via this route.

Will that be enough to please the old-timers, though? It probably won’t. During the build-up to this game, there was a wide selection of former pros on podcasts and in print who pretty much made the same point, firstly that Munster need to win a trophy this season, secondly that if they are going to do so, then their game will have to evolve.

For two weeks now, they’ve tried to do just that. At times it has worked – against the Sharks, Simon Zebo finished off a thrilling move that saw the ball travel across the width of the pitch through the hands of forwards and backs – but also against Sharks, Joey Carbery was picked off for an intercept try.

Then to Saturday. Again they had their moments – Munster’s first meaningful entry to the Stormers half came when Shane Daly broke clear on the left wing around the half-hour mark following a frantic exchange of passes between backs and forwards. In general, though, that first half was a hard watch.

shane-daly-poses-for-a-photo-with-fans-after-the-game Shane Daly poses for a picture with fans. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Afterwards, Van Graan spoke for 14 minutes and two seconds to the Press and it wasn’t as if there wasn’t much to discuss, a biting allegation for a start, a comeback from 15-0 down, the forced experiment of Keith Earls at outside centre, the latest steps on RG Snyman’s comeback.

But one sentence stood out above every other: “We tried to play at the start of the game,” said Van Graan, “but the opposition hit us backwards and we made mistakes, so we had to adapt.”

That’s the dilemma he and Larkham face. Pressure is being subtly applied from the outside, and from some pretty influential voices as well, with everyone effectively saying that if there isn’t a stylistic improvement in Munster’s play then they are going to be stuck on the same level for another year.

It’s hard to argue that point. But it’s also hard to dispute the one Van Graan made on Saturday. For half an hour, they were shocking. Gavin Coombes, who it appears has been officially renamed man of the match Gavin Coombes, spilled the ball twice in this period; Joey Carbery and Keith Earls kicked out on the full; the scrum wasn’t moving in the right direction; their line-out work was patchy.

And then they got to half-time, somehow just 15-7 behind, when in truth they deserved to be 25 points down, and they addressed the issues, simplified their tactics and blew the Stormers away. The old Munster would have been credited for doing something like that. All this crew get is a reminder that it is 10 years since they last won a trophy.

“We adapted to what the opposition gave us,” said Van Graan. “They came with a big rush defence; they didn’t give us any space beyond the 15s. They boxed us in and then they played with their wings high. They hit us and they dominated the breakdown. So we needed to change at half-time and from a coaching point of view, we are very happy that the team did that. We are certainly not going to moan about scoring four (forward-based) tries in the second-half. It is about balance.”

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rg-snyman-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-craig-casey-and-jack-odonoghue Coombes celebrates Snyman's try. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Perhaps too there should be balance in the criticism of Van Graan. The truth is he has done a reasonable job since he arrived here in 2017. Yes, he now has a better set of players available to him than his predecessor, Rassie Erasmus, had. But results are fairly similar between the current Munster coach and the one who left them to win a World Cup.

Erasmus’s Munster couldn’t beat Scarlets or Saracens; Van Graan’s crew have fallen short to Leinster domestically, Racing, Saracens and Toulouse in Europe.

That’s where they’re at, a competitive team, stuck on the second tier, constantly reminded that their attempts to get onto the next floor haven’t been ambitious enough, that all those semi-final defeats were far too similar, where they showed plenty of guts but far too little guile.

Saturday’s win was a lot like that. Yet it was still a win. Of the 16 teams who have lined up for this United Rugby Championship, only five remain unbeaten, and across the two rounds, Munster have been marginally the most impressive of the lot, especially in light of Leinster’s effort in Newport yesterday.

To be fair, that doesn’t mean terribly much. Trophies are handed out in May not October. But if everyone is going to insist on saying how much better the ‘big four’ South African sides are going to get when their Springboks return, then it’s only reasonable to suggest Munster might also be better off once Snyman is fully fit, once Damien DeAllende, Conor Murray, Chris Farrell and Tadhg Beirne return, once Carbery gets a dozen matches under his belt, once the rotation policy stops and Zebo starts.

Will that be enough to win a trophy at the end of the year? Well, the answer has to be yes, providing we’re talking URC and not Champions Cup.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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