Tony Ward: 'Van Graan has made his mark on Munster in a low-key way but he faces acid test tonight'
If I had a euro for every time I have been asked since last Friday's showing at Gloucester if Munster can now win a third star on the red jersey, I'd be doing very nicely indeed. Suddenly, there is a buzz in the air down south and a real feeling of expectation.
Let me confess that I too am getting sucked in. Does it mean 'the Van Graan Plan' has turned the corner or could later on today against Exeter be the acid test? Yes, on both counts. The post-Christmas win over Leinster, however scruffy, could in time be marked down as the match in which Munster in the Johann van Graan era came of age. Bear in mind at the time, and it's only a few short weeks ago, that some were questioning Munster's ability to win on the road. Well, whatever else the last fortnight has buried that myth emphatically with wins over Connacht and Gloucester (two form teams) at the Sportsground and Kingsholm respectively.
Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds further success but there are other factors too and they are significant. But before that I think it's imperative that we map the input of the current head coach.
Before he arrived, and no different I suspect than most rugby followers in the country, I hadn't heard of him, hadn't a clue who he was, apart from the bare facts of his involvement in Super Rugby with the Bulls in Pretoria and as part of the backroom staff with the national team.
So yes, 'Johann who?' was my initial reaction. But he came, he saw and he is conquering. And while his immediate predecessor Rassie Erasmus was an obvious link in the process, I do not share the same level of affection as others for the man who is now at the helm - and doing a pretty good job - of Springbok rugby.
My issue is with the timing of Erasmus' departure from Munster. His November exit accompanied by Jacques Nienaber (who in fairness he brought to Munster with him some 18 months before) was so one-sided in its orchestration it was, and I still hold this view, an embarrassment for Munster Rugby.
Once it was known - almost six months before - that he was going, he should have been given the door with Garrett Fitzgerald, John Kelly or whoever was holding the reins. I truly hope such a contractual flaw - whereby the party reneging is effectively allowed to determine the timing - is never allowed to happen again. We'll trust the legal eagles at Lansdowne Road to be doing their thing to ensure the manner of the Erasmus departure, and indeed that of Pat Lam too at around the same time, will never be repeated.
The main point being that Van Graan was handed if not quite a poisoned chalice certainly an infected one. And the timing of the previous regime's departure meant him taking up the cudgel with both Pro14 and Champions Cup competitions well under way. It was wrong and little credit to Munster for accepting the changeover in the way they did.
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On the back of that it was always going to take time for the new man to find his feet and great credit to Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery for the manner in which they handled the transition in the interim. Credit Jones too for not biting the Erasmus carrot dangled at the time to switch his coaching base to South Africa.
I don't know Van Graan personally but I consistently like what I see and hear in his media deliberations and from those close to the daily action on the ground. What we are seeing is not so much a Grand Plan coming to fruition - there's a long way to go for that yet with Leinster still the yardstick - but the pieces are being put in place slowly but surely.
What Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt have done at Leinster and Ireland (the latter with both) is to build a quality squad with strength in depth. Van Graan is nowhere near a comparable stage whereby the replacements' performance is at the same level as that of the starters. However, he is getting there.
The challenge today is in backing up what was the most complete 80-minute performance by Munster in Europe for a decade at Gloucester. Yes, there will be the relevant factor of home comfort but with respect to Gloucester and I know they shocked the Chiefs at Sandy Park, it is - along with Saracens - the strongest squad in the English Premiership.
Against Castres, and however dour this particular French opposition in Europe, the Chiefs were sensational. They bludgeoned as expected but they fine-picked with massive pace too in a really rounded team performance. Santiago Codero and Jack Nowell (ignore this nonsense about switching to wing-forward) are up there with the best in terms of creating space where none exists. So lest anyone is in any doubt this is the very real deal coming Munster's way in what is a massive game for both clubs.
From an Irish rugby perspective, this is Ireland v England in a fortnight's time in microcosm. No team, not even Saracens (for my money still the biggest threat to an Irish side retaining the trophy), retains possession as long, as clinically efficiently or as patiently as this superbly coached Rob Baxter squad. I would put Baxter on the same coaching pedestal as Stuart Lancaster in terms of the substance of what he gets from teams.
From a Munster perspective, their summer transfer business hasn't just been good it's been pretty close to sensational. The choices were pragmatic but they have matched it with the type of form that makes a difference. In specific terms whether newly arrived or getting a clear run without injury, the impact of Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Chris Farrell, Chris Cloete, Jean Kleyn, Mike Haley, Alby Matthewson and Arno Botha has been marked in its delivery. To that impressively assembled list, you can add Fineen Wycherley from within.
Fortunately, Peter O'Mahony is there today and given the nature of the injury I had doubted that he would play before the England game at the very earliest. His inclusion is a huge lift for the home team. When the skipper is in situ alongside Beirne and Cloete, it must be a nightmare for any opposition protecting possession in the tackle/breakdown area. Indeed if I were to highlight one facet in which Munster shade it over Leinster (and they too are hot at swinging possession) it is the contest at the breakdown.
And therein lies the real potential problem today up against a forward unit that plays 'keep ball' and protects possession better than any. If ever there was a day for the much revered sixteenth man to be patient, this is it. Can Munster win? Of course they can. Can the Chiefs suffocate and take away a rare Champions Cup win from Limerick? With equal conviction, the answer is yes.
No matter how we dress it up this is a massive European occasion, embracing the biggest game of the season for both clubs. A war of attrition is guaranteed and the goal-kicking in both camps - long and short - is top notch. It's worth adding that the quality of Carbery's marksmanship has improved significantly with the pressure of starting week on week.
Watching him strike the ball off the ground is a lesson in confidence and conviction at this point in time and that aspect must be a given today.
Behind the scrum, specifically in midfield, the jury remains out although were the choice mine, I would go with the chosen combination of Rory Scannell at 12 alongside Farrell. Whether it is the best permutation only time will tell but given the evidence to date, the call is right. Munster were really good at Sandy Park and even better again in Kingsholm, although with due respect to the latter today's opposition at their best operate at a different level again.
Exeter will be on a mission for what is one of the great experiences in not just rugby but sport when running out to a capacity Thomond on a European night in January in Limerick. This is Test rugby minus the cap. Some have their doubts but I like Jerome Garces as a referee. His mettle too will be tested.
This is the acid test for team Munster but O'Mahony's selection is a huge help, not just for his verbal presence but his physical nuisance at the lineout and breakdown. Who said Paul O'Connell the leader would never be replaced? Well, in O'Mahony the O'Connell spirit is alive and well. That will always be the way. Heart and head goes with red.
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