Johann van Graan has backed the strength of his world-class back three options ahead of Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 as he explained his decision to drop Simon Zebo to the Munster replacements bench.
Head coach van Graan on Friday named quarter-final try-scoring hero Andrew Conway at full-back and brought in a fit-again Keith Earls for his first game since suffering a knee injury in Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning victory over England on March 17.
With Alex Wootton occupying the other wing, Zebo must be content as outside backs cover in this showdown with the French club he is set to join at the end of the season but van Graan believes that with temperatures set to reach the high 20s at kick-off at 3:15pm Irish time on Sunday, he will need Zebo’s impact late on as bodies start to flag in the heat at Stade Chaban-Delmas.
“We’ve got a lot of world-class players in our back three,” van Graan said after overseeing his squad’s eve of match training session at the stadium on Saturday evening.
Earlier on Saturday, Racing 92 joint head coach Laurent Travers was asked about Zebo’s omission and said: "I won't make a comment on the opposition team and how they are organised, it's the coach's choice and if he has put in Simon Zebo as a substitute then he's planning something in his mind.
"We know the talent of Simon Zebo and he has a reason to put him on the bench. There's always a purpose. We know today it's a 23-man squad, and he has planned something specific with that.”
Van Graan believes the heat will have a significant bearing on the game.
“I think it will be a factor,” he said. “It’s really hot out there, even hotter than we anticipated so that will definitely be a challenge in tomorrow’s game. A lot of humidity, the ball will be sweaty and wet as well.
“It’s a semi-final, you have to be very strong in each department. Obviously with the wet ball, you need to be clever in the way you handle it. In lineouts, you hooker has got to dry the ball.”
The Munster boss said that having a strong set of replacements would help the management of his matchday squad in the heat.
“I think ever since the January break, we've put a lot of emphasis on selecting a very strong bench.
“We've alternated certain players into those positions, you only have to look at the last four weeks against Toulon, Cheetahs and Kings what our bench did.
“We don't like to call it a bench, we like to call it impact players and they've been incredible in the scrum in terms of ball-carrying ability, because at the end of the game when you need special moments like Andrew (Conway) against Toulon you need ball-carriers and players who can make good decisions especially in your key positions, hooker, lock, loose forward, your nine, 10 and outside back.
“It's pretty crucial, it's two quality sides going out there tomorrow so our impact will be huge for us.”
Another consequence of the high temperatures is a hard playing surface at Stade Chaban-Delmas with No.8 CJ Stander saying: “It's a pitch that you can play a bit of running rugby on but we've been used to that.
“We've been training on an all-weather pitch since the bad weather we had in Ireland. I don't know if Johann planned it, but it worked out and I think it's like the pitch they have (at the U Arena), so it's something we've all be used to.”
Van Graan added: “I think it suits the whole team. It's even hotter than we anticipated. You just had to look at the warm-up, the way the ball bounces. Your back three and the interchange in your kicking game is going to be crucial with 8, 9, 10 and the back three.
“Obviously, we anticipate a bit of space and the opposition will find some space as well, so for the backs it will be a good opportunity. Hopefully we can turn the opposition, who we respect a lot. They have a lot of quality in that team.
Travers made a request for in-game water breaks and the Munster boss said he would take one if it was offered to his players by match referee JP Doyle.
“The referees have control of every decision and if he feels there should be a water break then we will gladly have some water.
“I don't think we necessarily need one but if he says we will have a water break, the more water we can drink the better.”