'If you want to win away, you can’t concede any unnecessary penalties'

A key penalty in the loss to Leinster was completely avoidable.

THE OPENING SIX weeks of the Premiership season have already revealed a meaner, hungrier animal of an Exeter Chiefs side.

Bath v Exeter - Gallagher Premiership - Recreation Ground Henry Slade skips away from Chris Cook during Exeter's Friday night win over Bath. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Munster head coach Johann van Graan is well aware of the threats, and the variety of them, that the Chiefs can pose in Sandy Park in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener. Exeter back their maul to the hilt, with good reason, their defence can be suffocating and Rob Baxter’s long-term stewardship combined with the talents of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell ensures England’s table-toppers have massive confidence in their attacking shape and structures.

Van Graan repeatedly noted that he was ‘excited’ by the challenge of facing one of the best teams in Europe – a moniker certainly not diminished by evidence of the Chiefs’ battles with Leinster last season and Saracens through the years. However, the head coach knows that discipline must be among Munster’s virtues if they are to bring four points back from the tough trip to south-west England.

Munster have worthwhile grounds for complaint around some of the decisions-making of Ben Whitehouse and his assistants in the defeat to Leinster. But the Welsh official could not miss the offence which nudged Leinster back out of reach after the red pack had heaved and heaved for the overdue award of a try that made the contest a five-point game with 12 minutes to play.

From the restart, the otherwise excellent Stephen Archer took a good long look at the chasing Fergus McFadden and altered his running line to check and block the wing. A sickening penalty for a coach to see unfold.

“If you want to win away, you can’t concede any, let’s call them unnecessary penalties,” Van Graan said at the province’s UL training base yesterday.

All credit to the players, in our team culture, I didn’t need to put it up this morning, accountability was already taken for all the mistakes we made. That’s what we said as a team: if we lose I’ll take responsibility first and so does the team. It’s all about the team and fair play to the players they took that responsibility.

“Look, no rugby player in the world goes onto the field to deliberately try and make a mistake and that’s the beauty of sport, you get the next opportunity to improve.”

Archer, it’s worth reiterating, doesn’t have much to improve on after his showing on Lansdowne Road. Restarts aside, the Corkman was a powerhouse in the Munster pack. So when John Ryan’s return to full training was brought up, Van Graan returned to the Archer issue, backing the incumbent tighthead.

“I think Archie is one of the unsung heroes of the squad. He is a guy who doesn’t say a lot but if you look at the improvements in his game: he is very good at scrum time, he is one of the best maul setters and maul stoppers, his work-rate (around) the field for a prop is exceptional. He is carrying so well, he cleans well, he is a very good defender and he is one of those glue men in a team.

Stephen Archer, Ronan O'Mahony, Peter O'Mahony and Billy Holland Archer, Ronan O'Mahony, Peter O'Mahony and Billy Holland arrive at training yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He is one of those guys who never really says anything, but once he is not there, there is a big void. That showed last year against Edinburgh when he came off with an injury and we didn’t have it for the semi and we didn’t have him for the start of the season.

“It is brilliant to have Ryano back as well. He has got to come through training this week, but it will be great if we can play tightheads 50 minutes and 30 minutes (or) 45 minutes and 35 minutes. I think that’s what the modern game is about.”

The potential for dividing minutes between experienced scrum-halves would appear much more unlikely, however. With Conor Murray, Neil Cronin and James Hart ruled out before this week, emergency signing Alby Mathewson is now a major doubt. The Kiwi was due to undergo a scan on his knee injury and Van Graan signalled a willingness to wait as long as possible for the All Black to prove his fitness. Though if he’s not in a state to train fully on Thursday, Jack Stafford will most likely be green-lit to back up Duncan Williams.

Van Graan took over the hot seat in Thomond Park last November, ahead of round three of the 2017/18 Champions Cup. He is not promising that beginning two stages earlier this year will equate to going the final two steps towards lifting the trophy, but he feels this team have improved in the time under his watch.

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“I would certainly like to think we have grown, you  know with any new coach coming it certain things take time, you see certain things you want to improve and want to evolve but other things are also involved and I believe we have got a very good squad at this stage, I believe we have got depth.

Johann van Grann Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Injuries will always be part of it and, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the wins that you get and you must put yourself in a play-off position at the end of the season and I guess that will determine it. I would love to think that our skill level has improved dramatically.”

He added: “I’m not going to speculate on getting to a semi-final or final. When this pool draw came out… Exeter have got to Premiership finals, Gloucester have been playing brilliant rugby and I know their coach (Johan Ackermann) pretty well and he has quite a lot of good players and they lost that final in the Challenge Cup in dramatic fashion.

“Castres came out of nowhere and won the French Championship and again as I said that is why you want to be part of this competition… that’s the beauty of it: if you want to be in this competition you need to beat the best home and away.”

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Sean Farrell

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