By Simon Lewis
Johann van Graan has been involved in some pretty significant semi-finals in his coaching career and as he began preparations for Munster’s mission to succeed in Bordeaux this Sunday he urged his players to “embrace the expectation”.
The South African’s career as an assistant coach in his homeland saw him experience the highs and lows of last-four showdowns, winning a Super Rugby semi-final with his hometown Bulls en route to a title success but also suffer the devastation of a defeat with Springboks against the All Blacks one game out from the 2011 World Cup final.
Now he stands 80 minutes from a Champions Cup decider in Bilbao on May 12, just six months after succeeding compatriot Rassie Erasmus as the Munster boss.
Munster face French Top14 giants Racing 92 on Sunday at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas a year on from losing the 2017 semi on home soil to Saracens on Erasmus’s watch and van Graan wants his players to be as free from pressure as they can be.
“The main thing I’ve learnt from semi-finals is you have got to embrace the expectation,” he said yesterday.
“You’ve got to enjoy it. It’s 80 minutes away, then you play in a Champions Cup final in Spain.
“It’s four quality teams in the semi-finals, two will make it and two won’t and I hope we’re good enough to be in this final.”
Insisting last April’s 26-10 defeat to eventual champions Saracens at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium could only bring positives for his team during this week’s preparations, van Graan also pinpointed the reasons why his side could ill afford to fall short on such an occasion for a second year in a row.
“I think you need to use your opportunities. I think if you dominate territory in the first half, you have to point points on the board because semi-finals are about ebbs and swings and in that game (against Saracens) one or two things in that second-half didn’t go their way and maybe they just didn’t have enough points on the board.
“Pretty similar to our quarter-final (against Toulon on March 31), the opposition dominated us in the first 20 minutes and didn’t really put points on the board, put six on and we scored one try and were in front again.
“The flip side of that, the start of the second-half against Toulon we dominated, but we didn’t put points on the board and it nearly bit us in the end. You need to use your opportunities.”
Van Graan, who led Munster on a successful expedition to South Africa to collect nine points from a possible 10 with wins against the Southern Kings and Cheetahs over the past fortnight, said he was blown away by the level of backing for his side from travelling supporters and expressed the hope that Bordeaux would be awash with red this weekend as they attempt to overturn Parisian big-spenders Racing.
“It would be great to have many of them over in Bordeaux. We know they will be there. But we need to perform on the field as well. We have to perform to the best of our ability on Sunday to get a result.”
The South African tour was potentially a big upheaval for Munster once they had beaten Toulon to set up this Sunday’s semi-final but van Graan is convinced that as well as helping his side secure a home PRO14 quarter-final, it allowed some top-level early preparation for the European campaign.
“In the background, we started working on Racing. The fact that we could take close to our strongest team across to South Africa worked in our favour so that we are all on the same page.
“We used the squad, made I think 10 changes and then nine changes again, so everyone on tour knew exactly what part they had to play in getting results.
“The Cheetahs game was very important in terms of a home semi-final.
“If they had beaten us, it all came down to the last game against Ulster, so we’ve qualified for that and now we can put all our attention on the Champions Cup semi-final.”