Munster's Van Graan faces his biggest challenge
THE CHALLENGE: Munster coach Johann van Graan has achieved a lot since making Limerick his home, but one thing has eluded him up until now – a win against defending PRO14 champions Leinster.
Last time out in Dublin it was a nail-biting affair, with Leo Cullen’s side coming away with a brutal 13-3 win but with Munster in it until the last few minutes.
The two sides will meet again in a rearranged fixture after the original was called off due to a COVID-19 outbreak as PRO14 teams scramble to make up for lost time.
Despite the challenge and the fact that Munster are way out in front in Conference B, the game comes down to more than just bragging rights. Any team who wants to lift the PRO14 trophy this season knows they need to topple the champions – and while Leinster stumbled against Connacht, they returned with a roar against Ulster two weeks ago to show they will still be a major title contender this season.
For that reason, Van Graan is killing the big talk, knowing the challenge his team faces is not only on the field, but to overcome the aura of a side that has achieved so much and dominated both PRO14 and European Rugby over the past few years.
Still, there is an inkling that Munster are growing in confidence and will relish the test to see how well their development under Van Graan and fellow coaches Graham Rowntree and Stephan Larkham has come.
“We’ve played some pretty good rugby and we’re pretty happy with where we are at,” Van Graan said ahead of the game.
“Unfortunately, in a season so long, you have to take it week by week. It doesn’t help to pat yourself on the back about what you’ve done because we haven’t achieved anything. It’s a good start to the season, we are No.1 currently in our group, but that counts for nothing on Saturday.
“There are four or five points up for grabs. It’s obviously a big game in Irish rugby and one that I’ve personally enjoyed.”
There is a bit of added pressure with the derby for Van Graan to deliver a victory, but Leinster play a percentage game and they are so good at it, few teams across Europe have beaten them in the past three seasons.
Munster know they need to be better.
“They play a very pressurised game,” Van Graan said. “Scrum and maul, they’re potent. Once they get scrum penalties, they get into your half and will either maul you or they’ll play off that six-man (lineout) of theirs which they get into the vacuum, which they do very well with their centres.
“Then they phase-play, and once they get onto a roll it’s very difficult to stop. If they get a penalty, Johnny (Sexton) either kicks the three or they’ll go to the corner and maul again. So, they’ve got a very solid kicking game. They vary it well off No.9 and 10.
“Whether they go long or short, they’ve got a very specific way of defending, of getting 14 guys on their feet. They’ve got very good deci¬sion-making as to when to poach and when not to.
“They’re a very experienced group of internationals all over, they’ve got young guys like Hugo Keenan that have come in seamlessly, and played terrific rugby.
“They’re a proud club with a very good coaching team. It’s one of the clubs in world rugby that I respect – you have to respect quality and standards and that’s what they’re about.
“That’s why they’re currently top of their European pool and have won the PRO14 the last three years.”
While the task seems daunting, Van Graan will draw inspiration from the team’s win in Clermont in the European Cup where they stormed back from 28-9 down to win the match.
“The Clermont game is a good example of when you stay in the fight and when you take your points,” he smiled this week.
And if his team can pull off a similar performance then it could be anyone’s game.
Friday night will kick off the weekend on rearranged fixtures with a Welsh derby when Scarlets host Cardiff Blues.
The two sides met a fortnight ago, where the Blues won a keenly contested game 29-20 at Cardiff City Stadium.
“The (match-day) 23 that were involved in the Scarlets game previously won’t be too far away from the 23 that goes down there, and I think they deserve it,” said Dai Young, who is back at the Blues following nine years with English club Wasps as interim Rugby Director.
Former Scarlets player and current Blues forward Josh Turnbull could become just the fifth player to reach 200 PRO12 and PRO14 appearances.
The Scarlets, two points above the Blues in Conference B, will be without Wales back Liam Williams, who starts a three-match ban.
Saturday’s action turns first to Italy where Zebre will host Edinburgh in an afternoon kickoff.
Zebre are chasing their fourth consecutive victory, something they haven’t achieved for five seasons.
Confidence is high following back-to-back triumphs over Benetton, and Edinburgh face a testing assignment, especially as they have lost on their lost three trips to Italy.
The Scottish side, buoyed by international wing Blair Kinghorn signing a contract extension with them this week, were pipped 23-22 by Glasgow last time out.
The weekend’s fixtures are rounded out as Ospreys travel to Galway hoping to give coach Toby Booth his third consecutive away victory, after beating Cardiff Blues 17-3 and the Dragons 28-20 in their last two away games.
Booth has made an immediate impression with the Ospreys, with three wins from their last four Guinness PRO14 games consolidating third spot in Conference A.
Connacht will still be smarting from their loss to Munster and will want to make amends in the hope they can still catch their fellow Irishmen.
Scarlets v Cardiff Blues (Kick off 22.00)
Zebre v Edinburgh (Kick off 15.00)
Munster v Leinster (Kick off 21.35)
Connacht v Ospreys (kick off 17.00)