Munster’s upturn in form has not gone unnoticed. Three very different victories since Christmas, over Leinster, Connacht, and Gloucester have got supporters in the province buzzing again, opposition coaches revising their opinions and Ireland team-management reacting positively.
Of the starting XV which will seek to close out their Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign at home to Exeter Chiefs this evening, 11 will have received the good news from Joe Schmidt that they will be heading to Portugal next week to prepare for Ireland’s Six Nations title defence, starting two weeks today against England at the Aviva Stadium.
The other three that were eligible for selection but overlooked can consider themselves extremely unlucky such has been the collective improvement made, not just in the past three weeks but over the course of Johann van Graan’s first full season as head coach.
The 41-15 bonus-point victory at Gloucester last weekend was the clearest statement yet of the progress made on a curve that has been upward since van Graan succeeded fellow South African Rassie Erasmus in November 2017 but only really accelerated once the new man in felt able to start implementing his own ideas at the end of last season.
Munster had shown glimpses of their new-found attacking fluency earlier in the campaign but they were only that — signs — and against visiting teams in the PRO14 which had provided understrength opposition.
And when they went on the road themselves, they struggled to make an impression, never mind playing with the verve they had displayed in patches a home, save for grinding out a 10-10 draw in a gale-force wind at Exeter Chiefs’ Sandy Park stronghold in round one of the pool stages back in October.
Defeat at Castres in round four marked a nadir as Munster failed to match the intensity of the French champions, were bullied at the breakdown and profligate in attacking positions but the pressure increased again the following week as Ulster defeated a weakened line-up missing rested internationals at Ravenhill.
The December 29 PRO14 home win over Leinster that followed therefore drew a line in the sand, serving as an act of southern defiance against last season’s double winners and also brightening the mood, a feelgood factor which carried over into a pivotal away win against Conference rivals Connacht in Galway, though defensive lapses denied Munster a comprehensive interpro victory and brought upon them a nervy final few minutes before the 31-24 success was confirmed.
Gloucester, then, was the moment Munster came of age, in tandem with fly-half Joey Carbery’s man-of-the-match display, two tries in a 26-point haul that was his best performance since joining from Leinster last summer. It was not perfect by any means, but nor were Munster. The key takeaway from Kingsholm was that van Graan’s side had strung together back-to-back away wins against decent opposition, returning home with a try bonus-point on each occasion.
Carbery is growing in stature with every game while taking advantage of extended exposure at No. 10, a benefit to both Munster and Ireland, and the 23-year-old is one of three key close-season signings with lock Tadhg Beirne and full-back Mike Haley that have given belief, along with centre Chris Farrell’s return from long-term injury, that van Graan’s men are now becoming the real deal, capable of taking that extra step from losing semi-finals to being genuine title contenders.
Second-row Jean Kleyn, the one player in today’s XV not available to the Ireland head coach but set to qualify on residency later this year, has taken note of effect his compatriot van Graan has made on the province since his arrival from the Springboks set-up to his first posting as a head coach at the age of 37.
“Johann obviously arrived in the middle of the season and you can’t go changing the entire gameplan. You can’t go changing the set-up too much without changing the standards the team set for itself,” Kleyn said. “So I think he had a tough job his first season and I think he has implemented a lot of policies and a lot of on-field structures that are working quite well and hopefully will work for the rest of the season.
“I think he has a little bit more of a free rein this year because he was able to start on a pre-season, get his entire run. It has been good. We have also had the addition of a few new players which has also added to the squad depth.
“A rising tide lifts all boats and I think the Munster tide is rising over the last couple of seasons, we have been performing quite well and that is down to the coaching and also the buy-in from the players,” Kleyn said.
“That is one thing Johann gets out of the players, he gets buy-in, a form of respect and dedication to the actual team and the cause, to our beliefs and our vision for Munster over the next couple of years. Johann is an exceptional coach and he has done well for the team. Everyone thrives.” Former Irish international centre and long-time Exeter Chief Ian Whitten has witnessed Munster’s progression along that upward curve and is not surprised they are peaking in a timely fashion.
“They always do,” Whitten said this week in an interview with the Irish Examiner. “Europe’s so big for them that you would be surprised to have it any other way. They’ve been playing how they want to play and watching them last week against Gloucester was very impressive because they never looked like they were going to lose that game. They never looked rattled or under pressure playing away from home. It was just a very clinical performance and they know what they’re doing. They always play hard and it’s going to be hard to try and knock them out of that.”