Wednesday 19 December 2018

'If Johann saw that today, that's what he's going to get when he comes here'

Munster 14 Racing 7

Munster players celebrate with Conor Murray after he grabbed his side’s first try Photo: Sportsfile
Munster players celebrate with Conor Murray after he grabbed his side’s first try Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As introductions go, this was quite something. Johann van Graan was treated to a little piece of European rugby history on Saturday as he watched the first Champions Cup game to stretch beyond the hour-mark without a score, but this was no bore.

Rather, it was a battle of wills between two heavy-hitters in tough conditions.

As Ronan O'Gara - the man who might one day replace him as Munster coach but spent Saturday in the visiting dressing-room - summed it up: "We broke. We cracked first."

The crowd played their part, as the team repelled giant carriers and played without the ball for long periods while staying in the fight.

As the clock ticked on, the first score looked like it would settle matters. Racing mauled to the Munster line but got no further and when Conor Murray pounced on his own charge-down to score the relief was clear to see.

Andrew Conway doubled the lead as an unheralded home bench played their part, but there was a nervy finish and they needed some skullduggery at a final lineout deep in their own '22' to prevent a draw after Leone Nakarawa had crossed for a try.

Van Graan returns to South Africa to sort his affairs and await work permit clearance, but when he comes back to start he'll know a hell of a lot more about his new set-up than he did before Saturday evening.

"Look, we all saw it was a weird game, but the crowd was great," Rassie Erasmus said. "When they started singing, to see the boys guts it out - that's what Munster is.

"I guess we weren't favourites for this game today, the boys played against world-class players on the other side with experience, their average age was 30/31 and ours was 26.

"We know they're a big club with a big budget, so we need to play with heart, we have to be tight, we have to believe in ourselves.

Andrew Conway dives over for the second try Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Conway dives over for the second try Photo: Sportsfile

"If Johann saw that today, that's what he's going to get when he comes here - a bunch of guys who really play for the club, supporters who support the team through good and bad times. Maybe the weather might have frightened or put him off a little, but the whole experience would have been nice for him.

"He observed or shadowed us the whole week, so he was part of most of the sessions and stuff. He's got a good understanding of what we do."

For Erasmus, this is likely to be his last involvement in Champions Cup rugby for the province. His contract runs until December 31, but he once again hinted that his departure will be sooner.

"It's going to be very tough. Today was also tough, I'm going to miss it a lot," he said.

"I'll miss the players, the fans, the atmosphere. I'm going to miss a lot.

"We want to make sure that he's 100pc comfortable, the players are comfortable and the club is comfortable. I might be still involved for those games (against Leicester), but I think the time is coming closer now."

This win means he will hand over to his compatriot with the team in good nick. Six points from their opening two games against Castres and Racing leaves them level on points with Leicester Tigers, who they play twice in December.

"To pay the French teams early is always tough. Sometimes when they're out of it they tend to start concentrating on Top 14, but the two of them play one another twice and that might be interesting results," he said.

"The home and away games against Leicester will also be really important and then it depends how you find them in the last few games when you play Castres here and Racing away.

Conor Murray of Munster goes over to score his side's first try Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray of Munster goes over to score his side's first try Photo: Sportsfile

"This pool will go down to the wire, it'll be a tough pool."

O'Gara's Racing 92 will have a lot to say about how it ends and, already, the meeting of the sides at the Parisian side's brand-new U Arena is looking like a box-office event in round five.

The legendary Ireland international cut a disappointed figure in the Thomond Park press room after the game and bit his lip about the role of referee JP Doyle, who was lenient when Munster illegally infringed as a French maul marched towards the home line before the opening try and then missed a push on Baptiste Chouzenoux at the final lineout.

After receiving a 10-weeek domestic ban, it was wiser to keep his counsel.

"I promised myself I would never speak about referees after what happened me last week," he said with a knowing smile.

"I am on very dangerous ground. You have to be good enough to take the referee out of it. We had other opportunities in the game."

Still, he knows his team secured something precious in their away bonus point, even if he feels they could be in a stronger position.

"Last week was a point left behind. Against Leicester, we had opportunities to score three or four tries and we just did not take them and when you look at the group now, it is six, six, five," he said.

"It is cup rugby. We have to prepare for every game the way the Irish provinces prepare for Europe.

"That is where they excel, they peak for these games, especially their home ones. That (work-rate) has to be the basic level that you expect from Munster, that is their strength. They have such passion and desire to play for each other.

"And that is the basic ingredient of Munster rugby. The lads really care about each other, they care about their families and playing for the public and it is a fantastic place to play.

"That is a basic requirement now when you put on the jersey. That does not surprise me one bit."

Van Graan will come to know this as he looks to build on Erasmus's work.

MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway 57), C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (L O'Connor 77), R Marshall (K O'Byrne 63), S Archer (J Ryan 52), J Kleyn (M Flanagan 55), B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 71), CJ Stander.
RACING 92: P Lambie; J Rokocoko, H Chavancy, A Tuitavake, L Dupichot (A Vuvivuli 67); D Carter (R Tales 52), M Machenaud (capt) (T Iribaren 72); E Ben Arous (V Afatia 52), C Chat (D Szarewski 52), B Tameifuna (C Johnston 52); B Le Roux (E Maka 72), L Nakarawa; W Lauret, Y Nyanga (B Chouzenoux 71), A Claasen.
Ref - JP Doyle (England)

Irish Independent

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