One year on, van Graan and Munster have grown and evolved

On recent evidence, things are falling nicely into place for Johann van Graan as he prepares his Munster squad for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup clash with Castres.

Yet, if the South African has learned anything in his first 12 months as a top-level head coach, it is not to dismiss the challenge right in front of his nose.

It was just a year ago that van Graan, his suitcases barely unpacked after leaving the Springboks’ November tour to take up his first appointment as the main man in a professional rugby outfit, faced into a potentially daunting pool double-header against European aristocrats Leicester Tigers.

He had spent a week with Munster two months prior to that shadowing Rassie Erasmus, the man he would succeed, as they welcomed Racing 92 to Thomond Park, but nothing he saw from the outside looking in could have fully prepared him for the pressure, excitement and intensity that visits the province in a Champions Cup week.

Looking back on his early dive into the deep end last December, the Munster boss this week could reflect on the home and away victories over the Tigers that helped his new team take a giant stride towards a home quarter-final. But nevertheless, he feels both he and Munster are in a better position than they were a year ago heading into rounds three and four.

“I would like to say a lot better prepared than a year ago,” van Graan said.

“Obviously, it went pretty well the first two games against Leicester. At least a year in you have kind of had everything now for a second time, last year was the first time, now it’s the second time that we are going into this block.

“But the challenge remains the same, we have the French champions coming here and then we have to go over there next week. They are a quality opposition and, like I said, we have to really make sure that we get our planning done in the week.

“They play in a very specific way. I believe that is why they got such positive results and you don’t go away from home in France, win two games, a quarter and a semi-final, and go to Stade de France and win the Top14 if you are not quality.

Like I said from day one, it’s never been about me, it’s about the team. We believe in our team. For me personally, I have enjoyed every single moment of it, I do every day.

“It is never work when I drive here in the morning. It is all about coming to enjoy the day, enjoy what we are about and where we, hopefully, are going.

“It is no different than a year ago. The most important thing is what we do and players are happy and the management keeps growing and we are taking each day a step of growth and becoming a better team. I think we have done it over the past few weeks.”

With an away draw at Exeter Chiefs and a bonus-point home win over Gloucester, van Graan has an improved points tally on his return from the opening two rounds of 2017-18 under Erasmus when they escaped with a 17-17 tie at Castres and then edged past Racing 14-7.

More significantly, van Graan was last week able to notch a third straight bonus-point Guinness PRO14 win, a 44-14 victory over Edinburgh in Cork last Friday, while handing first starts of the season to both Conor Murray and Chris Farrell following their long-term injuries and, at the same time, seamlessly reintroduce a phalanx of Irish internationals after a month away on Test duty.

Plenty of boxes ticked there and the prospect of CJ Stander and Joey Carbery returning to the fold this weekend for the visit of the French champions is enough to prompt enough interest to turn Sunday’s 1pm Thomond Park fixture into a sell-out.

Last weekend’s performance at Musgrave Park saw Munster grab the try bonus-point after just 30 minutes, a period in which van Graan believed he saw the best rugby from his team this season.

A six-try first-half also featured a hat-trick from Keith Earls, and a pair from Andrew Conway after man of the match Farrell had opened the scoring in a dream comeback after eight-and-a-half months out with a serious knee injury.

It has all given the Munster head coach both the satisfaction of an evolving attacking gameplan to complement the province’s more traditional forward-focused strengths and something of a selection headache.

“I still have one or two issues, one or two guys who need to get through the week,” van Graan said. “Obviously, Joey and CJ back, need to see how they are.

“In my book, we are pretty close to the 26, 27 guys who will be involved and as the week goes we will make our final decisions but it was great that the team which went out against Edinburgh was close to a starting team, bar a few guys.

“I don’t expect a massive amount of changes this week.”

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