Monday 18 March 2019

'Once you are part of Munster, you are always of Munster' - Johann van Graan confident his side will tap into Thomond 'emotion'

Johann van Graan is wired up as he oversees yesterday’s training session. Photo: Sportsfile
Johann van Graan is wired up as he oversees yesterday’s training session. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Limerick's lunchtime streets suffocate in choking traffic, an occasional fluttering flag or jay-walking jersey splashing colour beneath a sombre sky threatening familiar rain.

Housed within the stubbornly unmoving motorcade are many Munster fans, their colours an obvious symbol of pride.

A surge of emotion, be it on wheels or on feet, will be ferried through these streets all week. Inspiration. Pride. Exhilaration. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Panic.

Munster must fuse them all into one coherent self as Exeter arrive, threatening an emotional energy all of their own, one also hewn from the very ground upon which they walk.

Physically, these teams are well-matched, their 10-10 draw in the reverse fixture the most relevant recent indicator so other factors will play out this week as they seek to edge each other from Champions Cup contention.

Emotion in sport may be a nebulous concept in a world of never-ending stats and baffling algorithms but it remains an integral part, nowhere more than in this corner of the world.

And as Munster quest a 17th quarter-final in 20 seasons, they know that their best chance of hosting one here can only happen if they replicate that special feeling.

The stage is set. Saturday under lights, an evening kick-off, the blood of English foes drifting amongst 25,600 nostrils.

The emotion is all around. But where does it come from?

"I think it comes from deep within," says head coach Johann van Graan.

Evident

"It was most evident to me when I came here the first time. You just have to drive around town during the week. Seeing boys in the street, playing rugby, not football. Or when I see the red flags.

"Then on the day, you drive there on the bus. You see all the people and what this team means to them.

"And then when you get to Thomond Park. I don't know what it is but you walk through that tunnel and all you see is pride, right in front of your face.

"So it comes from that and it comes from the history. And I am Irish now! So it comes from within and once you are part of this club it is like you have always been here.

"As 'Earlsy' (Keith Earls) said to me in the early days. 'Once you have been here you will never want to leave'.

"It's deep within. It doesn't matter where you're from. Once you are part of Munster, you are always of Munster.

"And games like this is why we play this sport. You might win or you might lose but I can guarantee one thing.

"If you are lucky enough to pull on that jersey, the effort for the people of Munster is the most important thing.

"That is why you have to improve your game because you can't always just count on emotion.

"I would like to think we have improved our game so we are going to use the emotion but we also have to play well to beat a quality team like Exeter."

Munster would have spoken of all this yesterday morning at their team meeting which was quite the unusual event indeed.

The reason? It was fully attended.

Compared to times last season, when Van Graan could literally list a starting XV of unavailable players, everyone was in situ yesterday, even imperilled captain Peter O'Mahony.

"The 47 players who we sat with this morning all want to play so there is no issue," said a relatively content Van Graan.

"It is all about that. We have planned well for the last two months to make sure we peak for these two games.

"Because after this, as I said to them this morning, the next time we see each other as a group will be in March and that's a long way down the line.

"Whoever gets selected in Europe will give their all. It is round six in Europe. It is about playing games likes this. It is all about winning."

With the only mystery surrounding O'Mahony's participation - his body was in fine enough fettle to bound down the HQ stairs with his pre-prepared spud dinner - the difference for Munster now is they have options.

Too often last season, they suffered restrictions which, perhaps not uncoincidentally, also placed a strait-jacket on their style of play.

"Pete's been involved in most of the big games for the last two years," admits the South African. "But he didn't start against Leinster - he was involved as a water carrier!

"So if it comes to that over the weekend, we're a team who believes in the squad. I've said from day one, in all competitions you're going to gain some guys and you'll lose some guys.

"If he doesn't play it will be a loss for the team, but I thought CJ Stander did really well as captain against Leinster and I thought Fineen Wycherly had an excellent day.

"We have Tadhg Beirne who can play on the flank, Tommy O'Donnell might shift over.

"There's Chris Cloete and the likes of both CJ and Arno Botha who have played Test rugby in that position before. So we have a lot of options.

"The most important thing is to find out how Pete is first, then look at those options and we'll make a call on Thursday."

Fair to say that, notwithstanding O'Mahony's slight bit of bother, the emotions are bubbling nicely down south.

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