Johann van Graan is confident Munster will hit the ground running on their return to duty today as they focus on the resumption of Heineken Champions Cup action next Sunday.
The Munster head coach was delighted to be able to head into a pivotal fortnight of European games, starting with the visit of Castres to Thomond Park on Sunday, on the back of a third straight bonus-point victory in the Guinness PRO14 last Friday.
His side swept to a [burl=88920044-14 win over an understrength Edinburgh in Cork[/burl] on a night when he was able to reintroduce several of his Irish internationals to the team following the November Tests as well as hand fit-again Conor Murray and Chris Farrell their first games of the season. He also witnessed what he described as Munster’s best rugby of the campaign to date in the opening half-hour as Farrell, Andrew Conway (two) and Keith Earls brought up the try bonus point after just 30 minutes.
With eight tries scored in total, it was just the sort of fluency and momentum the Munster boss was looking for after a stop-start month of league action and international absences, and nine days out from the back-to-back clash with the French champions in Pool 2.
“We said at the start of this block that it was important that we get a few points out of these first two (league games against Zebre and Edinburgh) and get a bit of rhythm going. That’s why we picked a very strong side, to make sure that we’ve got a bit of rhythm and I’m pretty happy with that.
“On a positive note, we’ve got a big turnaround so any knocks and bruises that we have, hopefully when we reconvene on Monday and start our big training on Tuesday because we play on Sunday, they will have been eliminated.
“That’s what you want, especially going into two crucial weeks of Europe.”
This is the second season in a row Munster have met Castres, having escaped with a draw at Stade Pierre Fabre in round one in October 2017 before a comprehensive victory in Limerick in round six last January.
Munster have got to an encouraging start to this season’s campaign, drawing at Exeter Chiefs and a bonus-point home win over Gloucester in this season’s opening rounds to take a two-point lead at the top of the pool.
Despite a 16-3 home loss to Agen in the league on Saturday, Castres is a side that has won van Graan’s admiration after overcoming Exeter 29-25 at home in round two having played more than half the match with 14 men.
“You don’t become the champions of France for nothing. They won two away games to get into that (Top 14) final and then to win it… we drew with them last year away so that will be a massive challenge.
“It’s a whole new year and they’ve got a squad with a lot of belief. We’ve been watching them over the last few weeks and they’ve put in some pretty decent results with some quality players.
“This is Europe, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Van Graan noted progress in his developing gameplan with the impact the backline made against Edinburgh as Earls completed a first-half hat-trick in eight minutes and 20 seconds and both Farrell and Conway grabbed two apiece with replacement fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal also scoring.
“It was pretty nice for our outside backs to score that many tries and I thought system-wise it shows that there’s growth in our team. And the fact that all those internationals came back, the academy guys came in and the regulars could glue back in with literally one training session, we only had our captain’s (run) on the grass here this afternoon, just basically a walk-through; it shows that system-wise we are aligned. I thought that alignment was really good.”
The return of Murray at scrum-half brings world-class quality and experience for these crucial European games while van Graan will also have CJ Stander and Joey Carbery available for selection.
Murray, fit again after a neck injury, was delighted to complete 80 minutes in his first game since Ireland’s third-Test win over Australia in Sydney on June 23.
“Great to get back out there with the lads, I’m delighted,” the scrum-half said. “It’s tough when you’re rehabbing and you’re watching them training and playing so to get out on the pitch and experience the buzz again is great. I got 80 minutes out of it as well and I think I’ll be all the better for it.”