Cian Tracey: 'Munster must prove that lessons have been learned if they are to make final step'
The closing stages of Munster’s enthralling victory over Edinburgh was a snapshot of what Johann van Graan’s side have largely been about throughout this season’s Champions Cup.
Gritty, determined and unrelenting in their refusal to take a backwards step, the manner in which the Munster players dug deep typified the complete trust they have in the coaches’ systems and in one another.
That they have reached the semi-finals having somewhat flown under the radar will feed into the province’s mentality as they look to right the wrongs of two consecutive defeats at the same stage.
To do so, they will need to take their game to a higher level than they produced in Murrayfield, but Munster can take a huge amount of confidence from the fact that they remain the competition’s meanest defence.
Having conceded just 72 points in their five pool games, Van Graan’s side kept Edinburgh to just 13 – the lowest tally of any of the teams who competed in the last eight.
That watertight defence will be vital against Saracens because the powerhouse English side’s 56 points (241 overall) against Glasgow sees them as the highest points scorers left.
The best defence against the best attack – something has to give at the Ricoh Arena on April 20.
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It’s interesting to compare the method used by Munster to see out the final few minutes in Edinburgh, to how Leinster snuffed out Ulster’s threat.
With the ball in play for a staggering seven minutes and 10 seconds at the end of the game in Dublin, Leo Cullen’s men gave an exhibition of going through the phases as Leinster clocked up 41 before Luke McGrath booted the ball out for the final whistle.
In control of possession, Munster could potentially have taken a similar approach to see out the game. With the clock ticking towards the 77th minute Billy Holland – just as he did in the pool stages – won a crucial lineout steal, which led to a Munster scrum.
From here, Van Graan’s side had the option of adopting’s Leinster’s keep-ball tactics for the remaining minutes, but instead Conor Murray opted to box kick and pin Edinburgh back after a strong carry from Dan Goggin off the scrum.
It was a pre-called move and it worked to perfection. Two very different approaches, but both equally as effective.
The ball was in play for four minutes and 46 seconds as Munster showed just why their defensive discipline has been so impressive this season.
Fourteen of their 15 players on the pitch made tackles, several of them making more than one, including CJ Stander who led the charge with five, while Tyler Bleyendaal was just behind him.
It was a relentless finale from a team who found a way to win despite not being at their fluid best, like Munster so often tend to do in Europe.
When Rassie Erasmus prematurely departed, behind the scenes there was just as much concern about losing defence coach Jacques Nienaber, who had made a big impact during his short stay.
In his place came fellow South African JP Ferreira, who may have kept a low profile since arriving in Limerick, but in terms ofhis impact, Munster’s defensive record speaks for itself.
They cannot, however, rely solely on their defence to see them end their semi-final hoodoo against a seriously impressive Saracens outfit.
Keith Earls’ stunning match-winning try showed what Munster are capable of in attack, with Murray’s offload and Chris Farrell’s soft hands underlying how much of a force they are when it all clicks.
Despite what the scorelines may suggest, in Munster’s last two Champions Cup semi-final defeats, they barely fired a shot.
Saracens were comfortable winners at the Aviva Stadium in 2017, while Van Graan’s side were blown away by Racing 92 last season.
Bleyendaal’s return to fitness and form has been a massive boost, but even still, Munster need a fit Joey Carbery for the trip to Coventry in three weeks.
The difference the fleet-footed out-half makes to the attack is unquestionable, while Tadhg Beirne’s arrival has also improved the threat that Munster pose.
Van Graan was able to sign two marquee players and both Carbery and Beirne joined in order to be competing at the business end of the season in Europe.
In the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s win, Rory Scannell was honest enough to admit that Munster have let themselves down in the last two semi-finals.
Time is fast approaching for Munster to prove that lessons have been learned and despite the sizeable task that awaits, they are better placed to ensure that there are no regrets this time around.