Munster v Leinster: Van Graan ready for first taste of ferocious derby
Lancaster backs new Munster boss to put his own stamp on things over time
Stuart Lancaster knows a thing or two about the difficulties in arriving at an Irish province mid-season, and while he might have rocked up to Leinster somewhat earlier than Johann van Graan has done at Munster, the former England supremo can appreciate the challenge that the South African has on his hands.
It has been a case of so far so good for Van Graan as Munster have won all three games on his watch but there is an acceptance that he hasn't yet put his stamp on the team.
The 37-year-old would admit as much himself as Leinster arrive in Limerick today looking to complete the double over their old rivals.
Both teams were impressive in their recent back-to-back Champions Cup victories over English opposition but it is Leinster who are being talked about as the more realistic title contenders.
Munster will have no issue with that but as they return to the nitty-gritty of the Guinness PRO14, the bragging rights at stake for this mouth-watering festive derby should provide plenty of fireworks.
While Lancaster's influence in plotting the downfall of Exeter Chiefs was crucial, he is also well aware of what Munster achieved in beating Leicester Tigers twice.
The Reds' style hasn't changed too much since the coaching changeover and given that Lancaster found himself in a similar situation last year, he doesn't expect Van Graan to do too much too soon.
"He's coming into an established system and I think it is a successful one," Leinster's senior coach maintained.
"Last season they lost in the PRO14 final and in the semi-final of Europe.
"To win at home (against Leicester) and then to win away from home... you could clearly see how much it meant to Leicester playing at home.
"I thought Munster kept their composure in that intensity and their discipline which ultimately gave them the win. It was a fantastic win for them.
"When I came in here it was probably slightly different circumstances. I would say it has been more of the same but why change something that is clearly working?
"I think he'll come in and bring his own identity during the course of this season but ultimately, I think it will be more of the same, and why change?
"I think it's still too early to (change) identity. When you come in as a new coach, you can't just wave a magic wand and change everything overnight. It does take time. I'm sure he'll put his own stamp on things as he goes.
"They're very good defensively, very good at the breakdown - all the bedrocks of the game, Munster are very good at.
"That's why when you beat Exeter, your mind very quickly turns to the next challenge and it's one of the biggest really. It's one of the biggest rivalries, derbies and one of the biggest games in the world really."
For Van Graan, this afternoon will give him his first experience of what the Leinster-Munster rivalry means to both sets of supporters.
Leinster might not be fully locked and loaded, but nevertheless Van Graan knows the scale of the challenge that faces his side.
"It's the biggest game in Ireland," the South African said.
"I did a bit of research over the last few weeks on this game. I watched the games last year and the game earlier this year.
"Leinster is the big Dublin team, (they have a) quality coaching staff, a lot of quality players, a lot of squad depth.
"To go to Exeter and to win there, they lost some star players early in the game and had the composure to pull off a result… that's really impressive. So it will be a 50-50 game, two quality teams going at each other.
"I'm very, very impressed with how they go about their business. I spent a lot of time watching their away game versus Exeter.
"Not a lot of teams win there. Their composure, they looked fit as individuals. Their quality of personnel, squad depth, quality of coaches. They are a very well-oiled machine.
"We will have to be at our best to beat them, even though we are playing at home. But our common theme, go back to zero. Start planning.
"Within Ireland, I can't think of a better game, Munster versus Leinster in a sell-out Thomond Park against quality opposition. It's a massive test for us."
Munster have opted to name a very strong line-up with Keith Earls (hamstring) and Tommy O'Donnell (shoulder) returning from injury. Andrew Conway and Rhys Marshall are back following concussion.
Jack McGrath skippers Leinster for the first time, while winger James Lowe makes his second appearance for the province since arriving from New Zealand.
Leinster may have opted to rest some of their front-liners but they are still able to name eight internationals in their starting pack, which is a sign of their remarkable depth.
With three interpros taking place over the coming weeks, both sides will look to juggle their resources and Lancaster admitted that finding the right balance at this time of year is tricky.
"Yeah, it's certainly part of the challenge in this period," he said.
"It's not just Munster - we have Connacht on New Year's Day and Ulster five days later.
"So, irrespective of whether players would have some downtime, it would be virtually impossible to play the same team in those three games with how close the games are to each other.
"The challenge for, not just ourselves… Munster will have to make changes on the back of the game (today) because they're playing on New Year's Day, so it's the same for everyone.
"My first experience down there last year, it was fantastic and a challenge for what was a young team.
"We want to be 100pc competitive because it's a massive local derby for both sets of fans and for us as a team.
"We're coming up against one of the best teams in Europe at the moment, and we need to have as many good players playing as possible."
That said, there will be enough star quality on show at Thomond Park today for Ireland's two heavyweights to offer up the latest thrilling chapter of this storied rivalry.
Munster v Leinster
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