Munster 31 Zebre 12
Wipe the slate clean and move on to the next job. That is the way Johann van Graan, like many head coaches, operates but as his Munster side transitions into this European knockout rugby week, his mantra of forgetting the past and resetting to zero on a Monday has never seemed so apt.
Saturday’s night’s Guinness PRO14 victory over Zebre achieved many of the South African’s objectives, not least the capture of the bonus-point which ensures his side keeps pace with conference leaders Glasgow Warriors.
Van Graan also welcomed back several of his Irish internationals from the Six Nations campaign and saw them prove their class when others were not quite as up to the task in a game that saw Michael Bradley’s side take a 12-0 lead after 18 minutes and Munster fail to trouble the scoreboard operator until the stroke of half-time.
That may well have further convinced the Munster boss that while squad depth is sufficient to stay the course in the league campaign, he will require his A-listers back in harness this week to tackle Saturday afternoon’s difficult Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final trip to Edinburgh.
Asked last Saturday night after the Zebre victory whether any performances may impact his selection thoughts for the week ahead, he replied: “We have a set starting 15. The team that played against Exeter, hopefully, most of them will be available against Edinburgh. Monday will be the first time since the Exeter game that the whole squad will be back together so I don’t see massive changes from that game.”
That effectively ruled out 12 of the starting XV, CJ Stander, Mike Haley, and Rory Scannell having started the final pool game against Exeter Chiefs on January 19.
Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, and Chris Farrell brought some gravitas to proceedings in the second half, while today will see a return to training ahead of the Edinburgh trip for Peter O’Mahony, fellow forwards Dave Kilcoyne and Tadhg Beirne, as well as backs Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway.
Of the XV that saw off the Chiefs 9-6 in Limerick nine weeks ago, only openside flanker Tommy O’Donnell is ruled out through injury while there are question marks over fly-half Joey Carbery’s return from a hamstring strain in time for Murrayfield, where he last appeared for Ireland on February 9.
With just three games remaining in the PRO14 regular season and all of them challenging at home to Cardiff Blues and Connacht either side of a trip to Treviso and Benetton Rugby as Munster bid to reel in Glasgow’s three-point advantage at the top of Conference A, van Graan will doubtless hope he has his first-choice XV available for the rest of the season but more immediately, European negotiations demand his top players at the table.
Munster eventually racked up five tries against Zebre, three directly from lineout mauls scored by front-rowers Jeremy Loughman on half-time, Rhys Marshall, and replacement hooker Niall Scannell, another off the back of one for Darren Sweetnam before Haley closed it out with a try from open play.
Niall Scannell, Kleyn, and Farrell all brought much-needed impetus to the Munster effort in that second-half recovery, as did replacement out-half Tyler Bleyendaal, who replaced an out of sorts JJ Hanrahan on 51 minutes and must be at the head of the queue to stand in for Carbery if the former Leinster star does not pass fit.
Jack O’Donoghue should rival Chris Cloete for the back-row vacancy at openside having excelled on his first start back, at blindside, from the serious knee injury sustained last May, while starting number seven Cloete did himself no favours incurring a yellow card for an overzealous cleanout behind a ruck that might have cost his team dearly had regular Zebre placekicker Carlo Canna not been injured minutes previously.
Van Graan’s biggest challenge, however, is to successfully reintegrate his Irish internationals over this week’s three training sessions after their nine-week absence.
“I learned that last year it’s pretty important to give the guys a break as well,” he said. “Someone like Peter has played some exceptional rugby this year, mostly maybe for Ireland, Conor has quite a few games on the bounce, he’s played all the Six Nations games.
“Killer (Kilcoyne) since December has played in every single game whether with Ireland or Munster and you have to give these guys a break as well and then you’ve got to embrace it.
“It’s world-class players coming back, we as a squad know what’s coming and we were in the same position last year. It’s up to us to make it work and no excuse after next Saturday’s game, we’ve got a few big training sessions. I don’t need to say much on weeks like this, review this game and put it behind us on Monday morning.”
The head coach’s belief that this Saturday’s contest will be “a big battle” was echoed by Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill following his side’s bonus-point home win over Leinster the previous night. “It’s going to be a bun fight,” the former Leicester Tigers boss said. “It will be bloody physical and it will be ugly and we’re going to look forward to it. We don’t get any points for entertaining. I want to play an attractive brand of rugby but there are parts of our game we need to develop. We’re just two years into a project which has still got a long way to go.”
MUNSTER: M Haley; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, R Scannell, A Wootton (C Farrell, 45); JJ Hanrahan (T Bleyendaal, 51), A Mathewson (D Williams, 77); J Loughman (L O’Connor, 70), R Marshall (N Scannell, 53), S Archer (J Ryan, 53); F Wycherley, D O’Shea (J Kleyn, 53); J O’Donoghue, C Cloete (A Botha, 67), CJ Stander - captain.
Yellow card: Cloete 57-67
ZEBRE: E Padovani (M Bellini, 52); G Di Giulio, G Bisegni, T Boni, J Elliott; C Canna (F Brummer, 48), G Palazzani (M Violi, 63); A Lovotti (D Rimpelli, 66), O Fabiani (L Luus, 52) , R Tenga (M Ciccioli, 58); D Sisi, G Biagi - captain (L Krumov, 67); M Mbanda, J Tuivaiti, R Giammarioli.
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales).