Johann van Graan praised his side’s character as they edged past Edinburgh in a gripping Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at Murrayfield today.
A try in both halves from Keith Earls allied to excellent defensive resilience in the face of an in-form home side which dominated possession and territory got Munster over the line in their 18th European top-flight quarter-final, just about good enough to earn a 17-13 win and a competition-record 14th semi-final berth next month.
Yet despite Munster’s greater European experience and pedigree as two-time champions, it was a victory very much against the odds as van Graan lost the services of full-back Mike Haley to sickness on the morning of the game, then saw both flanker Jack O’Donoghue and fly-half Joey Carbery withdrawn through injury in a first-half that also saw Tadhg Beirne sin-binned.
Earls’s tries in the 18th and 70th minutes, converted by Carbery and Tyler Bleyendaal respectively, saw Munster into the semis, Edinburgh’s 61% share of the ball only rewarded with a single first-half try for centre Chris Dean, converted by Jaco van der Walt who also kicked two penalties.
The province’s head coach was understandably happy with his side’s mental strength in eking out the victory.
"I'm delighted, it was an incredible game of rugby between two sides who didn't know how to give up,” van Graan said.
"A lot of credit to Cockers (head coach Richard Cockerill) Edinburgh, a brilliant performance from their side. They tested us literally from the first second.
"We as a group spoke this whole week about how this game might go until extra-time, they certainly kept going and we kept going.
"I'm delighted, it's our third semi-final in a row and this was a big one for us.
"Just look at the history of European rugby, you don't come away with away quarter-final wins. We topped our pool, we knew were coming up against a very tough, disciplined side and I'm very glad we came through it.
"We got on the bus with the news that Mike is out, the way we train and the way we do things, nothing fazes us, we just adapt.
“I thought we handled that well. The yellow card, losing Jack and Joey in the first half, it's a lot earlier than normal but we regrouped at half-time and changed one or two things tactically... the belief was there, congratulations to the players for pulling it through.”
Munster at times rode their luck at Murrayfield, Edinburgh at times opting to kick penalties to the corners rather than take shots at goal while Haley’s replacement at full-back Andrew Conway, switched from the wing as Darren Sweetnam came into the side, was fortunate not to follow Beirne into the sin bin after taking out opposite number Darcy Graham in the air as they contested a high ball.
“It’s a yellow card,” Cockerill said of that first-half incident and referee Pascal Gauzere’s awarding of only a penalty. “He’s in the air, he’s competed for the ball, he actually says that he grabs the player in the air and he lands on his back. It’s a yellow card.
“Sorry, you can’t choose to referee those things differently. But that wasn’t the deciding factor. It was a great game of rugby - it was compelling and it was very physical. We’re certainly starting to be a team that’s to be respected.”
Munster also profited from a penalty reversal initially given against Tadhg Beirne for a late tackle on van der Walt but overturned when Edinburgh prop Pierre Schoeman exacted revenge with a shoulder on the Ireland lock. The penalty led to the second Earls try as Munster scored from the resulting penalty and lineout.
Van Graan accepted Munster will have to up their game ahead of their semi-final date with Saracens, winners later in the day over Glasgow Warriors, which will be on Easter weekend, April 20-21 at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena. Yet for now, the Munster boss was delighted with the day’s work, from his players and the huge contingent of visiting supporters in the 36,358 crowd.
"If you were inside the bus when we arrived here, it's breath-taking to see the supporters. It felt like we were going to play at home.
"In terms of the group, that's why I came to Munster because of what Munster is about. It's about passion, integrity, real heart and real grit.
"Munster never seem to do it the easy way and we certainly didn't today.
"So, I'm incredibly proud to be coach of this team.
"The message from me to the team was 'brilliant, let's enjoy tonight. It's our third semi-final in a row, it's going to be a massive semi-final and we as a group have got big dreams and we will get to that in a few weeks’ time."