Munster 36 Ospreys 10: Johann van Graan has declared the transition from one Munster coach to the next at an end as he begins preparation for the first acid test of his new team’s European credentials on Saturday.
The time-frames have been tight for the 37-year-old, first-time head coach. Only a fortnight ago he was bidding his fellow South Africans farewell in Paris after the second Test of their end of season tour. Two days later he was starting work in Limerick, taking an observer’s role as assistants Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones ran the show for the return to PRO14 action at Zebre.
Van Graan assumed full control of the Munster playbook on the flight back from Italy and seven days later he was presiding over a bonus-point victory in Cork as his new charges notched a third straight league win to consolidate their second place in Conference A.
Now comes the tricky part. A visit from Leicester Tigers to Thomond Park is never to be taken lightly and in a tight Champions Cup pool that has the English powerhouse edging Munster on points difference after two games, this third coming together during the back-to-back rounds is particularly pivotal.
Not only must van Graan accelerate his catching up to a team almost halfway through its campaign, he also has to juggle a worrying injury list and engineer during the next six days a leap in performance levels in order to secure the win that will enable Munster to travel to Welford Road a week later with genuine confidence of progressing to the knockout stages.
He is already at an advantage in that regard, given he spent a week in Limerick during October in the company of predecessor Rassie Erasmus as Munster prepared for their round two home showdown with Pool 4 rivals Racing 92.
For that opportunity he said he was “very grateful” and in the aftermath of this five-try dismantling of a ragged Ospreys side, it was clear that van Graan considers the bedding-in process over and is now ready for action.
“I thought the whole (transition) process was worked very well by the IRFU and Munster. We were under pressure for the last two weeks to get results, you know, if we didn’t win there would have been a fair bit of criticism but well done to all involved, the coaching staff and to Niall O’Donovan our manager and all our staff and specifically the players.
“The Champions Cup is the big competition in the world in terms of club rugby, Leicester Tigers are one of the premier clubs in the world so Munster v Leicester will be massive and I can’t wait to start on Monday morning.”
Van Graan has not been brought in to rip up the Erasmus game-plan but to hone and enhance his fellow South African’s work of the past 18 months. He brought in Ireland defence coach and former Munster consultant Andy Farrell to fine-tune the province’s systems without the ball in an effort to fill the vacuum created by the departure of Erasmus lieutenant Jacques Nienaber and was more than satisfied with the way his players hustled and harried Ospreys into a series of poor decisions and errors that put them into a 24-0 lead in the first 30 minutes.
Excellent tries from centre Sam Arnold, wing Darren Sweetnam and the super-abrasive and smart-thinking openside flanker Chris Cloete all capitalised on the Welshmen’s mistakes in a ruthless and clinical exploitation of the undermanned Ospreys’ deficiencies, further exposed when PRO14 debutant back rower Will Jones was yellow-carded for a forceful cleanout around the neck on opposite number Cloete in the 16th minute. The 18-year-old’s rash decision cost his side 14 unanswered points, while the try Munster conceded just before half-time will be the source of recurring nightmares for Sweetnam, whose missed tackle on outside centre Kieran Fonotia led to Jeff Hassler’s score in the corner.
Yet never did Munster’s superiority look threatened and despite the precautionary half-time withdrawal of full-back Simon Zebo after a bang to his chest, the 24-5 interval lead was extended shortly after when Rory Scannell scored the bonus-point try his excellent performance deserved. Keatley’s fourth conversion of the night followed and Munster were home and hosed with 37 minutes remaining.
The fly-half failed to add a fifth from out wide after Jack O’Donoghue added to the tally on 56 minutes. The loss to a serious-looking knee injury of prop Liam O’Connor had taken some of the wind out of Munster’s sails before that but perhaps it was just too easy.
Against a side missing the quality of Lions tourists Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb and leaking confidence by the second, Munster took their eye off the ball. Discipline slackened as six penalties were conceded in as many minutes after the 62nd and O’Donoghue went to the bin nursing an injured shoulder, his absence allowing Ospreys to score their second, token try of the evening.
“We made one or two subtle changes, some things worked very well and we’ve got a lot to work on,” said van Graan, who interestingly withdrew centre Arnold with four minutes to go and purposely reduced his side to 13 men for an additional stress test before the hobbled O’Donoghue returned for the final 120 seconds.
“We’ll keep on improving. It’s so important to us now going forward. I’m glad that I saw a few guys. I learned a lot about certain individuals and I learned about the team. There’s excitement on our own goal line. Yes, we conceded a few penalties but the excitement to go and hit guys and execute what we’ve been training I’m very happy with that.”
S Zebo (JJ Hanrahan, h-t); D Sweetnam, S Arnold (withdrawn, 76), R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley (C Nash, 57), J Hart (D Williams, 50); L O’Connor (B Scott, 47), R Marshall (K O’Byrne, 62), J Ryan (S Archer, 73); J Kleyn (D O’Shea, 50), B Holland- captain; J O’Donoghue, C Cloete, R Copeland (S O’Connor, 76).
D Evans; H Dirksen, K Fonotia, J Hook, J Hassler (J Thomas, 72); S Davies (L Price, 75), T Habberfield; G Thomas (R Jenkins, 42), S Parry (S Baldwin, 25-32 HIA; 35), D Arhip (M Fia, h-t); L Ashley (R McCusker, 53), B Davies – captain; O Cracknell (G Mercer, 73), W Jones, J King.
W Jones 16-26 Replacement not used: R Morgan-Williams.
Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
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