Monday 23 April 2018

New-look Reds a greater threat - Van Graan highlights the area he has targeted to Munster Euro contenders

Munster’s Keith Earls scores his side’s second try despite the efforts of Racing 92’s Teddy Thomas Photo: Sportsfile
Munster’s Keith Earls scores his side’s second try despite the efforts of Racing 92’s Teddy Thomas Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A visit to the U Arena offers a glimpse into the potential future of professional sport and Johann van Graan used his team's trip to the space-age Parisian venue to offer us a glimpse at what Munster 2.0 might look like.

If we take Rassie Erasmus's season as the reboot of the struggling Irish province, this was the next step.

Erasmus got the team superbly organised and fiendishly difficult to beat, but relied on methods that came undone when the ground hardened and the pace of the game quickened.

In their two biggest games of the campaign, the Reds ran aground in humbling fashion.

Their clash with Saracens in the European semi-final exposed them to the best team in Europe playing at the top of their game and they were well off the pace.

When they returned to the Aviva Stadium a month later to take on Scarlets, they were beaten out the gate by a Welsh region brimming with a positive attitude to have a go from anywhere.

The enduring memory of the Sarries game is that of Munster's ball carriers - so dominant in the earlier rounds - running aground in a sea of black jerseys and of Tyler Bleyendaal operating so deep that he couldn't offer any threat.

Then the Scarlets ran riot, playing the type of positive rugby that Glasgow and Connacht had played before them in winning the Guinness PRO12. Something had to change.

No one was calling for a change of coach but Munster got one anyway when Erasmus upped sticks and was replaced by the little-known Van Graan.

A mid-season transition was always going to be tricky but the Irish province have managed it reasonably well.

It appears to have afforded the highly-regarded Felix Jones more responsibility and if the evidence of Sunday's thrilling loss to Racing 92 is anything to go by, the work of the former Ireland full-back and his new boss is going to make for an exciting future for the Reds.

In playing beneath the roof and on the 4G surface at the U Arena, Munster moved from the depths of winter to summer rugby and they showed signs that they'll be in a position to thrive if they can put themselves in with a shout in April.

"When I accepted the job that was one of the things that I targeted," Van Graan said.

"You know, the European knockouts but also the two-week tour to South Africa and getting to April and May.

From what I saw of Munster last year, they got so close in that semi-final against Saracens and then the Scarlets played very well in that final, but you need an all-round game.

"So we're working very hard as a squad on our attack, on our passing ability.

"I thought the breakdown was very good, although it can still improve - again, Racing have so many stealers.

"But it's a long season and the only thing that matters now is that we've got to recover and we're back at Thomond Park and a win is enough to get us through."

Victory over Castres would put the province back at the hard edge of the European competition and they look better equipped to do damage this time around.

Beneath the roof, they were willing to hold possession and move the ball. They kicked just one in every 10 possessions and passed almost half of the balls that came their way - a 10pc increase on the Saracens semi-final when they were more likely to tuck the ball under the jumper and carry.

At a time when Leinster's backs are earning rave reviews, Munster can legitimately claim to have an electric back-three who relished the hard track at Racing's new home.

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In particular, Keith Earls was sensational on Sunday, continuing a rich vein of form that appears to have been unbroken by the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the November internationals.

Conor Murray's passing range was on full display as he whipped long, crisp deliveries to the wide channels as Munster looked to stretch the big forwards and keep the tempo high.

With Ian Keatley in flying form and the centres capable of mixing the hard-carrying game with an improving passing mix, the backline is more than capable of threatening when given good ball.

CJ Stander says the pivot in game-plan pre-dates Van Graan's arrival, but believes his compatriot is instilling belief in the players.

"We've done that earlier in the season but it just didn't come off," the No 8 said.

"Johann has brought some new things in. I think 'Mur' (Conor Murray) jumping in a few lineouts a few weeks ago (against Leinster) is something that he has brought in.

"He gives players confidence to try something. I think I've probably made more passes in certain positions in the game. He gives you that confidence to try something and make sure that you bring something more to the game."

Of course, Munster also need to figure out a way of winning those tight games and their frustration at letting a lead slip was palpable after the game.

Yet, when they flicked through the footage and watched the tries and the ones that got away, they'll know that they look more capable of creating opportunities against good teams than before.

They'll rue the ones that got away, but the loss to Racing is far from fatal to their chances and there is plenty of time to put a clinical edge in place.

"They probably left one or two chances out there, but they're also excited about what we created against a pretty world-class back line," Van Graan concluded.

"So there's a lot of potential. Every week it's about decision-making and finishing every chance and we're still waiting for that perfect game.

"The positive out of it is we're creating multiple opportunities.

"It's not a drive, box, win the aerial game - we've still got that as part of our armoury but we want to move forward and score more tries as well."

Irish Independent

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