IT WAS APPROACHING 11pm on Friday when Johann van Graan sat in front of a screen to speak to us on zoom. Night had fallen yet shadows were lifting.
From the moment he arrived into this Munster job way back at the tail end of 2017, van Graan has been repeatedly reminded of two things. First, what went on here in the noughties, when Munster won two Heineken Cups; second, what is still going on at the neighbour’s gaff, where Leinster are the Pro14’s dominant force.
As if all that wasn’t enough to deal with, the South African then found himself trapped in the shadow of his predecessor. While there weren’t puddles of tears to sweep away when Rassie Erasmus left Limerick to go home in November 2017, there was a re-evaluation of his status in the aftermath of the Springboks’ World Cup win. “Had Erasmus stayed, would our trophy famine be over?” was the question every Munster supporter seemed to be asking.
As the 2019/20 season ended without silverware – a pool stage exit in the Champions Cup, a semi-final loss to who else but Leinster in the Pro14 – the Erasmus query got repeated.
Then it stopped. Down in southwest France, La Rochelle had been renamed La Rog-helle. Without a trophy in their history, the club coached by Munster legend, Ronan O’Gara, was making serious progress not just on home soil but also in the Champions Cup, the tournament Munster supporters crave more than any other.
It all meant the Erasmus shadow had gone but an O’Gara one loomed even larger.
Time to kick on: Peter O’Mahony in action. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
And then a few things happened over the last month. First, Leinster lost to La Rochelle, so for once they were the ones who had to endure the where-do-we-go-from-here questions. Secondly, O’Gara signed a new deal to stay with La Rochelle and thirdly, Munster finally beat Leinster and somewhere over the Rainbow Cup, van Graan was able to ask if others can dream, why can’t he.
“That was a pretty complete performance,” van Graan said of Friday’s 38-10 victory over Ulster, referencing their set-piece dominance, breakdown accuracy and scoring efficiency in the red zone. “Defensively that last 10 minutes where we didn’t concede was pretty important to us,” he added. “I’m very happy with a good night’s work.”
He should be. Derbies, after all, are confrontational affairs. Munster have played two of them in a fortnight and emerged unscathed, winning collisions, winning matches. They’re two from two in this Rainbow Cup, a record shared by only one other side, Treviso. All we need now is Judy Garland’s voice, a tweak of the song title, a reminder that clouds are far behind, where trouble melts like lemon drops.
“We’ve had a very consistent season,” van Graan said, referencing their return of 18 victories from 22 matches. “Unfortunately, the game against Leinster in the Pro14 final didn’t go our way and then the Toulouse game could have gone either way.
“When the game is over, it’s gone; it is beyond our control – but what we can control is how we finish the season. We can aim for consistency in performance; we can aim to use our squad. On Friday, there were eight or nine changes in the starting team and there will be more changes next week and in the remaining games.”
Conor Murray is congratulated for scoring. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
The biggest change in the last month has been a mindset rather than a personnel one. Physical battles have been won now against Leinster and Ulster. “There was an edge to how we played and you could see that in the last 10 minutes, stopping multiple mauls,” said van Graan. “Remember Ulster are really good at their maul. We certainly won a lot of the collisions on Friday night.”
They have a won a lot in last fortnight; Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne earning Lions call-ups, continuing a club tradition. “That was a team goal to make sure we got players on the tour. Firstly Conor, a world-class player, it seems that he’s been playing forever. I can remember him doing so well with the 2013 Lions in Australia and then on the 2017 tour in New Zealand. Now he’s going to South Africa to complete the set.
“So I’m really proud of him, the way he’s performing. He’s got a lot of competition in Ireland and in Europe but he always comes out on top and is a man for the big game. And the one thing I’ll say about Conor, why I believe he’s a Lion, is that he turns up every day to do the hard yards, he’s a true professional in terms of that.
“And Tadhg, I’m ecstatic for him really. He joined Munster at the start of my second season, and he’s been phenomenal for us. He really came into his own this season in terms of calling the lineout, running the forward pack. I thought he was excellent in the Six Nations and it’s fully deserved. When you are selected for the Lions that says you’ve got world-class players in our team.”
That number could soon be expanded to three the way Gavin Coombes is developing. Suddenly the CJ Stander gap does not look so sizeable. Better again, a new home-grown winger is also emerging, Shane Daly playing with dare and skill on Friday.
Here’s van Graan on Coombes: “CJ has been one of Munster’s best players for the last number of years so it’s important we fill that position and Gavin will certainly push for that jersey in the coming years. He has been consistently good.”
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And here is what he had to say about Daly: “I felt two weeks ago against Leinster he was really good and on Friday he had an excellent game so I’m really chuffed for him.”