Johann van Graan said from the outset that when it comes to European pool campaigns every minute of every game is crucial. At Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening, his theory was put to the test as Munster used the full 80 and then some to earn maximum points from this Heineken Champions Cup pool opener.
The province’s superiority over an Ospreys side shorn of the majority of its Welsh World Cup stars was obvious as Munster dominated proceedings with 78% possession in the first half. Trouble was, the scoreboard showed only a 13-6 interval lead, Jeremy Loughman’s try converted by Tyler Bleyendaal separating the sides.
There was a more representative look to the final scoreline, Munster having pulled away after the break with two tries in four minutes from Test wings Keith Earls, in his first provincial appearance of the season, quickly followed by another from Andrew Conway, his fifth in as many matches for club and country and sixth in eight games this season.
Yet, it was not until the clock had turned red that Munster got what they really needed in this group of death with Racing 92 and Saracens also in the Pool 4 draw. A bonus-point fourth try was the requirement and James Cronin provided it with more than a little help from his pack-mates as their driving maul blew Ospreys back behind their tryline to secure the five-point win.
Though van Graan disputed this was the minimum requirement, a schedule that sees much stiffer challenges to come, starting this Saturday when Racing go to Limerick, suggests otherwise.
“We as a group were aware there was a lot of noise on the outside of this being a definite five-pointer,” the head coach said “Looking at what happened the previous two years with draws away from home in the first round, we said ‘listen, we’ve got to play well, we’re going to come up against a desperate, hungry, motivated opponent and we’ve got to weather that storm’, which I felt we did pretty well.
“We were looking for a win like we do every week and very satisfying to come away with the win.”
That Munster achieved its objective missing two frontline fly-halves and a Test loosehead prop will be as pleasing to the coaching staff as the resolve of the players to eke out that last-gasp bonus point.
Bleyendaal may no longer be a colt in the out-half stakes but he is relatively lightly raced after a couple of career-threatening injuries and he managed his team’s gameplan without fuss in the absence of injured duo Joey Carbery and JJ Hanrahan.
Similarly, the calf injury that will keep Dave Kilcoyne out of the Munster front row for a few weeks allowed Loughman to make his first European start at loosehead and put in a top-scoring, man of the match performance.
That is the kind of strength in depth Munster are going to need if they are going to get out of this extremely challenging pool, as van Graan acknowledged on Saturday night.
“Yeah. We as a group spoke inside about depth and having Shane Daly and Ben Healy here for the experience (travelling reserves) and Finian (Wycherley) and Jack (O’Donoghue), they didn’t even make the 23 this weekend.
“You need depth in this competition and just looking at what’s ahead, Racing, one of the sides of European rugby, next week. Then we’ve got Edinburgh in Cork (in the PRO14) and Saracens home and away; then three interpros against Connacht, Leinster and Ulster and then two more European games. So you can never have enough players of quality and that was one of the things we identified two years ago, we’ve got to improve as a squad.
You had to feel some sympathy for Ospreys. While Munster were methodically reintegrating Ireland players, Allen Clarke’s squad was still without the bulk of their World Cup contingent which powered Warren Gatland’s team to the semi-finals three weeks ago.
Many English players who contested the final in Yokohama a week later were back on club duty in the Champions Cup at the weekend but Ospreys were stripped of eight frontline players including the talismanic forwards Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric and instead fielded eight European debutants against an experienced Munster XV.
Having worked in the IRFU coaching system for so long, former Ulster assistant Clarke could not argue with the logic of giving his star assets the rest they require but it left him wondering what might have been. “When the draw came out and we were getting Munster at home, we’d envisaged having everybody available and I would have fancied us,” Clarke said.
He will be able to reassess that notion when he brings Ospreys to Thomond Park in January for the Pool 4 finale. In the meantime, van Graan will take this bonus point and move on to a more pressing appointment in Limerick next weekend, content that his players have taken a positive step in the right direction.
“The most pleasing thing of tonight was to see how the players reacted with two minutes to go. They wanted that bonus point and they delivered and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.
“You know, a lot of things to improve on. We’ve got such a long way to go but to fight for that last try was very nice.”
C Evans (J Hook, 61); H Dirksen, T Thomas-Wheeler, S Williams (K Williams, 60), T Williams; L Price, S Venter (A Davies, 50); R Jones (N Smith, 50), S Otten (I Phillips, 60), M Fia (G Gajion, 69); M Orie, L Ashley (B Davies, 50); D Lydiate - Captain, O Cracknell, M Morris (S Cross, 50).
M Haley; A Conway (S Arnold, 71), C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin, 67), K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (A Mathewson, 66); J Loughman (J Cronin, 60), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 60), J Ryan (S Archer, 50); J Kleyn (T Beirne, 54), B Holland; P O’Mahony - Captain, T O’Donnell (A Botha, 59), CJ Stander.
Karl Dickson (England).