Rowntree on Thomond Park: 'It was nothing like I’d tasted before for a club game. It was like a Test match'

Rowntree on Thomond Park: 'It was nothing like I’d tasted before for a club game. It was like a Test match'
Graham Rowntree

It's not like Graham Rowntree to need a bedding-in period and he was characteristically relaxed on his first outing in front of the Munster media.

Sitting around the same boardroom table as he did back in May, before making a “quick decision” to sign up, he recalled the first question he was asked when sitting down with Johann van Graan and some board members.

“The first thing they asked me was about the 2002 European Cup final. I explained to them I was off the field at the time when Neil Back allegedly used his hand.”

Munster's new forwards coach had a similarly deadpan assessment when asked about full-back and fellow Englishman Mike Haley: “A terrible scrummager”.

For a man who described himself as “growing up playing Munster” during their rivalry with Leicester, he seemed right at home: “It feels like I’ve been here a long time, to be honest with you. The guys have welcomed me in and adapted to how I do things.”

In a bizarre quirk of history, however, Rowntree managed to miss all of his former club’s visits to Thomond Park, meaning Saturday’s 21-all draw against Racing was his first impression of a European occasion in Limerick.

“I’ve not been surprised, it has been everything I thought and hoped it would be.

Graham Rowntree
Graham Rowntree

“The atmosphere Saturday night was nothing like I’d tasted before for a club game. It was like a Test match. It’s a special support, the boys appreciate that.”

The learnings from Saturday focused on that Test theme too: “We had our hands full. It was like a Test match against a quality French Test-standard forward pack.

“They turned up, didn’t they? They wanted to play. They were hard to contain. Crucially, we didn’t lose it, but we could have won it. We were under the pump but we came through it.

“One thing this team is, we’re a last-10-minute team. Our fitness came through.”

Another big occasion will follow on Saturday week when reigning champions Saracens come to town.

They've knocked Munster out at the semi-final stage in two of the last three seasons, but their on-field preparation has been hampered by an off-field scandal over salary cap breaches, which resulted in a large fine and 35-point deduction in the Gallagher Premiership.

Rowntree is familiar with the set-up from his time working with England and while sidestepping the salary cap issue, he praised their rugby output.

“You can’t deny the class of player, and the class of their coaches, and their culture.

“I’ve been in and out of that group when I worked with England and they used to invite me down to look at training. You can’t deny the good thing they have got going on there. I think that will shine through.

I’m not here to comment about what’s been going on with them but I know there is a class of people and class of coaches there that regardless of what’s happening, they will perform on the field. They will use it to circle the wagons.

After Friday’s visit of Edinburgh to Cork, Munster head into a seven-week period featuring four Champions Cup pool games and three interprovincial ties.

It’ll be all go, week-on-week without an opportunity to draw breath until late January, and Munster enter it with an injury crisis at loosehead prop, without Dave Kilcoyne and Jeremy Loughman. However, Rowntree doesn’t see it that way.

“We’ve got plenty of props. That’s one thing that has really impressed me, the depth and the class that we’ve got.

“Throughout pre-season and certainly now, we have got the young academy lads training with us and they are doing very well. They have brought a real attitude and energy to training. We’re down a few props but that just means I can put more into the young guys, which I love.”

When asked to name some of those reserves who have caught his eye in training, Rowntree protests about being seen to have favourites, before giving a mention to 20-year-old South African recruit Keynan Knox.

“He’s performing like a seasoned player and he’s still a young man. But it’s wrong to single out guys - apart from Keynan! - because they’ve all been impressive.”

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