Sunday 20 October 2019

Van Graan vows to break glass ceiling


Van Graan: ‘We need to improve’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Van Graan: ‘We need to improve’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It was all so very familiar. Johann van Graan came before the microphones as he had done in Bordeaux 12 months before and as Rassie Erasmus had done at the Aviva Stadium in 2017.

For the third year running, Munster fought their way to the semi-final stage and took good teams out along the way, but when they reached the final four they found the door closed firmly in their face.

One by one, they faced the cameras and conceded the galling, undeniable truth that they were beaten by the better team.

Munster's run to this stage had been a white-knuckle ride as they overcame a tough pool impressively and scraped their way past Edinburgh in the quarter-final, but Saracens were able to expose the fault-lines in their team and game-plan clinically.

All season Mike Haley has been prone to error, but nobody went after him as unmercifully as Ben Spencer and Owen Farrell did.

Tyler Bleyendaal has looked impressive against lesser opponents, but faced with the black wave he retreated just as he did two years ago.

Their strong defensive lineout was negated, their breakdown threats were snuffed out and they couldn't lay a glove on the English side at scrum-time.

Once they got ahead, the relentless English side - champions in 2016 and '17 and favourites to reclaim their crown this season - were content to force and capitalise on mistakes.

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Last year they lost their semi-final to Racing 92 before they ever gave it a shot, but this was a different experience for Munster and it was almost easier to take because of it.

Although they can still reflect on the achievement of reaching this stage and maintaining their place in the continent's top four, their head coach is not content.

He has vowed to come back stronger next year, as the wait for a final stretches into its 12th season.

"I believe we do need to improve. If we are just going to say this is good enough then we are not in the right job," Van Graan said.

"We do need to improve, we do need to evolve our plan, but evolving our plan doesn't just mean to attack. We literally didn't have the ball in the first-half, not because we didn't want to, but because they kept bombing aerial bomb after aerial bomb at us. If you play, with their mass and their width they force turnovers.

"Once you kick it away it is pretty difficult to defend. We have to keep evolving in all areas of the game and as I said before we won't leave any stone unturned. We've just got to look forward."

Whereas clubs in England and France can spend their way to success, Munster will have to grow organically.

There has been talk of them signing a centre from overseas, but as it stands Van Graan does not envisage any additions to the squad.


At least they have stemmed the tide of departures after losing Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo to Paris in successive seasons.

"At this stage it is this group again," Van Graan said.

"Obviously, with the World Cup coming you might get some short-term solutions if there are injuries and a lot of guys at the World Cup.

"But we as a group have said we're going to stick together. That's why all of our big players re-signed. We believe in the plan.

"It's so important to get the message across, we want to win Europe. We want to win the PRO14. We've just got to do it step by step.

"I can't emphasise enough, last season there were one or two things we could have done better, but today we were beaten by the better team."

Of course, the loss of Joey Carbery and Keith Earls was felt keenly. The duo were top of the province's scoring charts in this year's competition and the attack stuttered in their absence.

However, as Van Graan said, this was about more than a less than coherent attacking approach. Munster were squeezed the way they squeeze teams in the PRO14. Saracens swarmed them defensively and when they pinpointed a weakness they went after it aggressively.

Their set-piece was strong, their attack was patient and they managed to push the boundaries of rugby union's laws as far as is possible while staying on the side of the French referee Jerome Garces, who made some poor decisions on an erratic day.

But this wasn't about the match officials. Saracens are the complete package and Munster, while a very good team, had no answer to what they offered.

"It's step by step. Saracens didn't get to where they are in one season," Van Graan said. "We'll just keep moving forward. I was lucky enough to get offered the job and stick to 2022 and hopefully beyond, and we believe that we are on our way to greater things.

"That is certainly why I'm here and that's why all the players recommitted to this club. We believe in Munster Rugby.

"Everybody has bought into that and we'll have a revisit to this game and the end of the season, we'll hopefully get a positive result in the Pro14 and then take the next step.

"That's the beauty of sport, there is always a new season and I believe that the best is yet to come. We are improving as a squad, improving as a team.


"We certainly believe that we have improved in all areas of our game. Once you get to the semi-final stage of Europe there is just quality (teams) left, and they were better on the day.

"So we've got a lot to look forward to and we as a squad believe that we will get there. We're just going to take it step by step.

"We're very disappointed to lose today, we came here to win and weren't good enough on the day."

In November, two weeks after the World Cup finishes, they begin - as their coach is fond of saying - at zero and attempt to climb the mountain again.

Japan will have an impact, Clermont will be back and the draw will be important. Nothing in this competition is ever straightforward.

Munster won't know if they've made strides for another 12 months when they come up against their glass ceiling once again.

The long wait goes on.

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