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Van Graan challenges Munster to build on Wasps performance

The province’s attack was much improved against the English side on Sunday.

Rory Scannell celebrates after scoring the final try of the game.
Rory Scannell celebrates after scoring the final try of the game.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AS BEN HEALY’s beautiful chip landed in the arms of Simon Zebo to tee up the winger’s record-breaking try at Thomond Park yesterday, it was strange to think you were watching a team who have come in for heavy criticism this season.

With less that 20 minutes on the clock the province were 17 points up on Wasps and well on the way to securing their fourth win from four in Pool B of the Heineken Champions Cup.

They achieved that with a performance that at times touched on the sublime. They moved through 21 phases before Conor Murray scored the game’s opening try. A smooth lineout led to Healy’s clever dink which saw Zebo move clear as Munster’s all-time leading try-scorer in Europe. Gavin Coombes then bashed off the challenge of Charlie Atkinson before Jack O’Donoghue provided try number three before half-time. 

All the while, they moved the ball with purpose and ambition, the lack of accuracy on display against Castres a week previously nowhere to be seen, while they also had the power and defensive organisation to shut out any hopes of an unlikely Wasps response.

Munster have rarely looked so sharp this season. 

They made a bright start to the second period, too, the bonus point score arriving through Jeremy Loughman, before the life slowly seeped out of the contest.

To be fair to the hosts, it’s hard to keep your foot on the gas when the opposition are offering so little in return. A late flurry of scores from Zebo and Rory Scannell capped an excellent day’s work for a team who have largely failed to convince this season.

Two months on from their ill-fated trip to South Africa and the disruption which followed, they gave Thomond Park a performance which suggested there just might be a few interesting days left on Johann van Graan’s watch before the head coach departs for Bath.

“You know, who would have thought when we got on the plane to South Africa what was lying ahead,” Van Graan said. “Now six games later, four out of four in Europe, beat Ulster with 14 men and a sub-standard performance against Connacht losing 10-8, we certainly would have taken that.

In terms of continuity, that’s the difficult thing. What we have gone through, we have never used it as an excuse. It was just the way it was. And, look, in fairness to everybody who was involved in that… We are definitely improving week in week out and it is good to see we have most of our squad just stepping in, it is next man up. 

“If you think about our performance tonight, beating Wasps 45-7, the guys not available, if you go through that list we have such good squad depth and it is all about week to week.” 

The weekend’s results left Munster paired with Exeter in the round of 16, with the 2020 Champions Cup winners set to host the province in the first leg on the weekend of 8/9/10 April.

“We’ve had some big battles over the last three years with them,” Van Graan said.

“Obviously we had them in our pool (2018/19), the 10-10 draw at Sandy Park, the 9-7 at Thomond Park, the famous Billy Holland steal. Exeter are a phenomenal team, the champions of this cup two seasons ago.

“The team is in a really good place, we’re very glad that we could play games (over the last two months). 

“Inside the camp, (the attitude is) really good. We just stuck to our process. We are excited. We’ve won games in different ways so very glad that we’re through this period with five out of six. We’ve qualified as the third team for the round of 16, and I think we‘re pretty well set in the URC.”

Munster now head into an interesting period as the Six Nations steps into the limelight. The province are away to Zebre on Saturday in the URC minus their internationals, with another URC fixture against Edinburgh scheduled for 12 February. 

simon-zebo-celebrates-after-the-game Simon Zebo scored two tries against Wasps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their Ireland stars will then return just in time for that massive Champions Cup date with Exeter.

Munster will look to keep building some momentum during that window, and the likes of Healy and Zebo will be keen to kick on again. Healy’s star turn against Wasps leaves him in a good position to challenge Joey Carbery for the 10 shirt going forward, while Zebo will hope another couple of strong performances might be enough to push him back into the Ireland squad for the final rounds of the Six Nations.

“(He played) Pretty well I thought,” Van Graan said of Zebo. 

“The unseen things. I thought Zeeb’s kick off chase were excellent tonight, he really read that well. He is just being Zeebs, the finish off both line-outs.

He just brings so much energy and he’s got a real connection with the crowd. It is great to have him our team. Look, he has been so unfortunate only playing a few games, his second last game was the 15th of October and then he had the 14 minutes against Ulster so it was great to get an 80th minute performance about him.

“But, to be fair to the whole group, everybody put up their hands. If you look at the bench, Josh Wycherley, Scott Buckley, two young lads, you’ve got John Ryan, the old bull, which again did very well in the scrum. You’ve got Fineen (Wycherley) playing fantastic rugby, John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, so a good mix of a team between our internationals, guys that have been around the squad and some young guys. 

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“And the glue of the team, a special mention to Jack O’Donoghue (27), playing 150 games for your club at that age, it seems like he’s been around forever, he plays week in, week out.

“So, good squad effort. Hopefully we can maintain some rhythm over the next few months and who knows where we’ll be by round of 16 time in April.”

And that is the big question that continues to hang over Munster. The potential is clearly there, but too often they fail to deliver on it. Despite their own struggles for form, Exeter should offer the toughest examination yet.

For now, the pressure will be off as the Six Nations rolls into view, and Van Graan was optimistic on the chances of Keith Earls and Joey Carbery being available for Ireland’s opening fixture against Wales on 5 February.

Earls was pulled from yesterday’s squad with a muscle strain, while Carbery is working his way back from a fractured elbow

“Earlsy, we’ll have to see how serious that is. I don’t foresee it to be serious but I’m not a doctor.

“Joey had the elbow but he’s been training, not had any contact but I believe he’ll ready for Test-match rugby. That’s Faz’s (Andy Farrell) job, he can make those decisions. He’s got three quality 10s in his squad but from a game time point of view, I think both will be ready to go for the first Six Nations game. But I’ll leave that to Faz.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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