Thomond Park, 3.15pm
Nigel Owens (Wales)
Munster 10/11, Toulon 10/11, Draw 25/1
The size of the challenge facing head coach van Graan’s injury-hit side at Thomond Park this weekend became apparent on Sunday afternoon, as a Toulon side missing several frontline players romped to a 49-0 victory over French Top14 rivals Clermont Auvergne at their Stade Mayol.
A trademark swallow dive over the line from Chris Ashton underlined the confidence Fabien Galthie’s team are playing with, as they turn their focus away from the French title race and onto the business of securing a fourth European title in six seasons this May.
That they will have to reach the final destination of Bilbao via Limerick represents a significant roadblock, given the intimidating arena that awaits them, but the size and quality of their squad, both numerically and physically, matched up against the home side’s stretched playing resources, gives the French giants a considerable advantage.
Van Graan may be new to the job, having succeeded compatriot Rassie Erasmus only last November, but he has learned already that where Munster are concerned, the way things look on paper are often very different come game-day.
Asked how he would convince his players to buy into that thesis, van Graan replied: “Just the Munster way. Rugby games are won in the hearts of men.
Back the people of Munster to pull us through. Goosebumps when I say things like this, but sport is about doing the unthinkable; go to where other teams aren’t prepared to go.
“When you say things like this, you really do respect the opposition, because you know they might take you apart, but rugby games are 50-50 occasions, it’s the same for both teams, it’s all about 80 minutes.
You want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning and everyone is ready to go. Saying things like ‘put your body on the line, work-rate off the ball’, it gets tested in games like Saturday. That’s what Munster is about.
Captain Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray are back from their post-Grand Slam breaks, but Munster’s latest setbacks from the 19-7 PRO14 victory over Scarlets on Saturday include a recurrence of the shoulder injury which kept Tommy O’Donnell out of Ireland’s Six Nations squad, presenting van Graan with a conundrum in terms of his back-row selection options.
The Munster boss will be forced to field a backline unrecognisable from the one he inherited four months ago. He is down to the bare bones from scrum-half to full-back and all points in between.
He must also decide who fills the vacancy created at openside flanker by the serious injuries suffered by both O’Donnell and Chris Cloete.
“I see it as a massive positive,” insisted van Graan. “We’ve got some really good options: CJ and Peter O’Mahony coming back, we’ve got Jack O’Donoghue, who has played some fantastic rugby, Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver, and Robin Copeland has been unbelievable.
“I said to him after that performance over the weekend; he did some things that very little players in the world can do. It’s great to have these options available.
“We’ve had a long hard think on what we want to do and, personnel-wise, every time we lose someone, we gain someone.
“You’ve got to slightly adapt your plan, and also look at what the opposition do. They do pose a massive maul threat, especially off their five-man lineout, once they get close to your goal line. Then, you’ve got to spin it around and see what you can do to disrupt them.
We’ve had a lot of time to think and plan and play around with a few ideas, so we have got a plan and, once the team is selected, hopefully the plan will work on Saturday.
There is no doubt the return to the red jersey of O’Mahony, Stander and Murray will give Munster a massive boost, even if Keith Earls, the province’s fourth member of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning side, will miss the next six weeks with a knee injury sustained in the closing minutes of the victory over England at Twickenham 10 days ago.
Their gold-standard involvement should not be taken for granted, but it can be relied upon for a big occasion such as this Saturday.
Van Graan will also expect similar contributions from the rest of his squad if victory over Toulon is to be achieved.
“That’s what dreams are made of,” he said.
“I haven’t heard about a lot of heroes that were born in times of peace. In big games, you want guys to come through and win the games. There are so many opportunities, guys are playing for the first time in big games. I think it was proved on Saturday. Saturday wasn’t about individual performances against Scarlets, it was a battle, we met what came our way front on.
Maybe one pass, one kick through, one decisive tackle would be the difference and it might be remembered, it might come down to one player, one moment. Twenty-three guys will have that opportunity, but the most important thing is always the team.