Van Graan gets set for European baptism of fire

The big guns are back for Munster’s Champions Cup showdown with Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park tonight (7.45pm) and what a noise there has been around them these past few days.

Van Graan gets set for European baptism of fire

In fact, for all the decibels and bold-type headlines surrounding his squad this week for reasons other than this game, head coach Johann van Graan better hope his players have been travelling to and from training wearing ear defenders and blinkers in order to stay focused on the task at hand.

Talk of contract negotiations and the potential exits of lynchpins Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, in addition to the growing injury list, are hardly ideal circumstances in which to prepare for a European debut as a head coach, but if van Graan was under any illusion that being the main man in a professional rugby outfit was all wine and win bonuses then he has been rudely awoken from that idyll this week.

At least all the chatter will be silenced when the South African steps foot inside Thomond Park for the first time as Munster boss this evening and a near sell-out crowd transforms the place into a big-match cauldron.

For this is a must-win game for the province if the unfortunate mid-season transition from Rassie Erasmus’s management regime to van Graan’s is to be considered seamless in any shape or form.

Lose at home to old foes Leicester and not only are Munster rocked onto the back foot in terms of European qualification for the knockout phases ahead of next weekend’s visit to Welford Road for the fourth-round rematch, but the new head coach will also be forced into something approaching crisis mode just three weeks into the job.

Nor is defeat at Fortress Thomond the unthinkable scenario it once was, certainly where the Tigers are involved. If anyone knows how to get the job done in Limerick it is Leicester, who have returned victorious to the English East Midlands twice before, the only opposition to do so in 23 seasons of European competition.

Indeed, the sweet smell of success will still be in the nostrils of eight of tonight’s Leicester starters, who starred in December 2015’s 31-19 raid, while the bitter odour of last season’s 38-0 hammering on the return visit will provide the stimulant to ensure those mistakes are not repeated.

Leicester, now under the charge of former Leinster boss Matt O’Connor, look a more formidable outfit than the ones which visited in the past two seasons, with English Test half-backs Ben Youngs and George Ford now in tandem at club level following the latter’s move from Bath.

Also new to the scene is England wing Jonny May, in sparkling form for his new club with 10 tries in nine appearances and adding further punch to a backline featuring the handful that is Telusa Veainu at full-back.

There are notable absences for the Tigers, with England prop Ellis Genge injured last week in defeat at Wasps, while midfield battering ram Gareth Owen was also sidelined in that game in Coventry.

Yet Munster are missing more, particularly in the backs where, despite the return from Test duty of Conor Murray and Andrew Conway, injuries to Keith Earls and Chris Farrell have paved the way for Sam Arnold and Alex Wootton to make European debuts at centre and on the wing respectively.

Both are in form, with Wootton the province’s leading try scorer this season on seven.

Arnold scored two last week against Ospreys to cement his comeback from the injuries that blighted his first season at Munster and is quickly developing a profitable understanding with inside centre partner Rory Scannell.

Today’s opposition will be sure to pose more testing examinations of their readiness for the biggest stage.

That said, there is still a strong look to this Munster team with the returns also of Dave Kilcoyne, O’Mahony, and Stander following their post-Guinness Series weeks off.

The two big beasts of the back row will be joined by a smaller, though no less tenacious, flanker in South African openside Chris Cloete, who seems to be taking to Northern Hemisphere rugby with aplomb.

So far. Like Wootton and Arnold, this will be the new signing’s first significant acid test.

For if Munster are to contain a Leicester backline that gained more metres in the first two rounds than any other side, averaging 502m per game with ball in hand, then that back row must be at the forefront in shackling scrum-half Youngs and playmaker Ford, described this week by van Graan as “some of the world’s best half-backs”.

He got a taste of the European experience when he watched Erasmus take charge of his final Champions Cup fixture in October, a gritty win over Racing 92 that leaves Munster trailing pool leaders Leicester on points difference only. He must hope for a similar outcome now he has taken the reins.

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