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Dublin: 9°C Thursday 25 February 2021
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Rare win over Leinster would be momentous for van Graan's Munster

The South African has only tasted victory in this fixture once before.

Kevin O'Byrne and Chris Cloete at Munster training yesterday.
Kevin O'Byrne and Chris Cloete at Munster training yesterday.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

JOHANN VAN GRAAN takes an extended pause when he’s asked to pinpoint Leinster’s biggest strength.

And then the Munster coach launches into a lengthy answer that highlights just how big a challenge his team faces on Saturday at Thomond Park.

Leinster’s pressure game is impressive, begins van Graan. Their scrum and maul are potent. Their clever lineout attack often targets the “vacuum” just behind the set-piece, getting their centres over the gainline early.

Their phase play is difficult to stop, while Johnny Sexton can accurately kick goals. Defensively, they’re good at keeping 14 players on their feet and their decision-making at the breakdown is exemplary. Experienced international star players, plus plenty of young guns too. Don’t forget their “very good” coaching team either.

Van Graan’s Munster have played against Leinster eight times since the South African took over in 2017 and they have won only one of those games.

Three of the defeats have come in Pro14 semi-finals, most recently last September. 

The only victory for van Graan so far was in December 2018, a fiery affair at Thomond Park in which Leinster wing James Lowe was sent off for taking Andrew Conway out in the air in the first half of Munster’s 26-17 win. 

Wins over Leinster are some of the most valuable currency in European rugby at present, never mind Irish rugby, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that success this weekend would be momentous for Munster as the provinces meet again in the Guinness Pro14.

They are about to lose some key figures to Six Nations camp for the coming months but a win on Saturday would feel like the culmination of promising progress under van Graan, Stephen Larkham, Graham Rowntree, and JP Ferreira so far this season. 

keynan-knox-and-johann-van-graan Van Graan with Keynan Knox. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

One could sense the excitement from van Graan yesterday even across a Microsoft Teams call, although there is sure to be nervousness there too. Another loss to Leinster wouldn’t be good for business. So what gives him confidence that things will be different than the last time, when Munster lost 13-3 in Dublin?

“It’s nice to play at home,” said the 40-year-old. “We’ve got some good momentum.

“We are four or five months down the line in terms of our development and in terms of playing time together. We’ve gone through a series of games where we had to win in different ways.

“If you look through our season, some games we won convincingly, some we were down and out, some games were won in the 83rd or 84th minutes. It’s a new game, we believe we can win every game we play.

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“The difference when you play these big games, the inter-pros, you’re playing quality opposition and the teams know each other so well. Most of these guys will go into international competition next week, there’s not a lot of secrets. It’s literally individuals that have a huge influence on the game.

“Then, individual moments of brilliance. We’ve had some, they’ve had some. Those are the small moments.”

In-form individuals like World Cup winner Damian de Allende – who was signed for this kind of occasion – will hope to make a difference for Munster as they look to replicate some of the things that helped them to produce that remarkable comeback win against Clermont in the Champions Cup last month.

“The Clermont game is a good example of when you stay in the fight and when you take your points,” said van Graan.

He is expecting another tight, 80-minute affair this weekend, while he pointed out that the weather forecast is for rain, cold, and maybe even snow. 

andrew-conway Andrew Conway at training yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In that sense, kicking will be as crucial as Munster showing off the attacking development Larkham has driven. Van Graan said he was not annoyed with Leinster’s criticisms of Munster’s style of play the last time the sides met.

“At the end of the day, all of us as coaches are in the same boat and we’re looking for our teams to win and you’re looking for some sort of edge. Obviously, they have a very aligned coaching team who believe in a very specific way of playing the game.

“But I believe all teams do 90% the same things in different positions and all teams will do what’s needed to win. Fair play to them, they won that semi-final and became the champions after that.”

Munster are due to play another rescheduled Pro14 game away against Italian side Benetton on 30 January but beyond that, van Graan said they are as much in the dark about the calendar as the rest of us.

They hope for some clarity on that schedule in the coming weeks but for now, all eyes are on this big derby against Leinster.

“I think everyone is just excited to see a game of rugby this weekend,” said van Graan, “and the fact that it is Munster versus Leinster and there is a Six Nations to follow after this.

“Unfortunately, our supporters cannot be with us but a lot of people, not only from Munster but from Leinster and all over the world will be watching this game. That’s always a privilege to be part of.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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