Van Graan: Cheetahs clash at altitude will be ideal prep for Euro test
Southern Kings 22 Munster 39
Munster coach Johann van Graan believes next Friday's battle with the Cheetahs on the Highveld will be ideal preparation for the Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 in Bordeaux the following week.
His men overcame a jittery opening half to see off the Southern Kings at Outeniqua Park on Saturday evening after it appeared that the South Africans were destined to ruin CJ Stander's homecoming.
Munster, however, got their act together before the break with a couple of tries and never looked back when Stander, captaining the side at a venue where he hadn't played since he was 12, appropriately got the decisive score early in the second half.
The focus will now switch to the Cheetahs in a game which will be crucial to where both sides finish in their conference and Van Graan reckons it will pose a serious challenge.
"A big test which is good preparation for our semi-final in Europe," he said of the clash.
"Cheetahs are a quality team. They have only lost once in the PRO14 in Bloemfontein. We have got to go to altitude so that will be a massive test."
Van Graan's main injury concern is James Cronin, with the loosehead going off after 10 minutes with a shoulder injury which was being assessed after the squad returned to Cape Town by road yesterday evening.
"It looks like a shoulder injury. It's very difficult to say, he was in a bit of pain and that's why we took him off immediately. We will know more in 48 hours' time," said Van Graan after the game.
Dave Kilcoyne impressed after coming on for Cronin but, with Liam O'Connor out the for season, it would leave only Brian Scott as cover for the loosehead position if Cronin is ruled out.
The squad made the 430km journey by road from George back to Cape Town yesterday, where they will be based until they fly to Bloemfontein on Thursday for the clash with the Cheetahs the following day.
They will then travel by road for four hours to Johannesburg to fly back to Ireland via Dubai, arriving home on Sunday.
Van Graan knows it's a lot of travelling and, having made 10 changes for the Kings match to the side that beat Toulon, he is likely to bring some of the other big guns back for Friday's clash with the Cheetahs.
Munster endured a torrid opening half where little went right but, after cutting a 15-3 deficit with a try, they went to touch with a penalty from deep inside their own half and played on to score and cut the gap to two points at the break.
Tries from Niall Scannell and then Calvin Nash helped to cut the gap to two at the interval.
"One of the things we are working on is our tempo," said Van Graan. "We had a penalty on the hooter just inside our 22, we could have just kicked it out.
"We went for touch and we scored a try. It was a massive momentum swing in the game.
"We managed the game in the second half very well. Our bench also did pretty well."
The Munster coach was pleased to see Stander score a try on his return to his hometown.
"It's nice for him. For CJ it's all about the team but it's to see how the people of George have embraced him," Van Graan said. "Nice to score a try but very good team effort from all involved, management and players and even the non-playing guys."
Replacements Kilcoyne and Stephen Fitzgerald made big impressions off the bench and, with Ian Keatley controlling matters at out-half, Munster dominated the second-half.
Stander crossed after 48 minutes for the decisive score and the bonus-point win was wrapped up with efforts from Dan Goggin - after a sublime pass from Rory Scannell - Rhys Marshall and Kilcoyne.
Stander was given a standing ovation by the crowd, which included more than 200 travelling Munster fans - when he was replaced late in the game. And with family, friends and workers from their farm in attendance, the back-row said it was a special occasion.
"For me personally to be back in my home town to play in front of my family, friends and people I know was a great experience," explained the Ireland No 8.
"I remember coming to this stadium from when I was four, five or six years old. It's the same atmosphere I remember."
The Kings coach Deon Davids is also from George and he said that while his side are improving, they need to build the depth which the likes of Munster have developed.
They have improved in recent weeks after a torrid campaign but expect to be a lot stronger next season, with proper preparation and a more stable squad.
"It really was a game of two halves," Davids said. "In the first half we did some good things and we had ample opportunities but the tempo they brought to the game in the second half was decisive.
The Kings' season will fizzle out in the next couple of weeks but, for Munster, this was just the warm-up to the business end of the campaign as they bid for glory on two fronts, despite so their struggles with injuries.
Southern Kings - M Banda; M Makase, J Nel (N Dukisa 63), B Klaasen, Y Penxe; M du Toit (L Vulindlu 70), G Masimla (R van Rooyen 56); S Ferreira (J Forwood 36-40) (Forwood 70), S Coetzee, P Scholtz (L Pupuma 56); S Greeff (L Mtyanda 56), B De Wee; A Ntsila (L Badiyana 67), M Burger, R Lerm.
Munster - JJ Hanrahan (Fitzgerald 63); C Nash, D Goggin (S Fitzgerald 32-40), R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, J Hart (J Stafford 65); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 10), N Scannell (R Marshall 56), J Ryan (B Scott 67); J Kleyn (B Holland 56), G Grobler; D O'Callaghan, C Oliver (J O'Donoghue 56), CJ Stander (R Copeland 73).
Ref - L Linton (Scotland).