Munster head coach Johann van Graan has plenty of credit in the bank on the eve of the new campaign after steering the province through a difficult transition from the Rassie Erasmus regime midway through 2017-18.
Yet semi-final defeats at the business end of his initial term, one comprehensive, the other frustratingly narrow, still gnaw at the 38-year-old South African on the eve of his first full season in charge.
A resounding Champions Cup semi-final loss to Racing 92 in Bordeaux last April is seen as the outlier in the collective minds of the Munster squad, the no-show that misrepresents the work and abilities of players and management alike.
More telling was the season-ending 16-15 defeat at the RDS on May 19 when van Graan’s team was denied by the narrowest of margins from a Guinness PRO14 final appearance by a Leinster team which went on to complete a European and league double.
History is written by the victors, so the saying goes, and the narrative is that Leinster are the undisputed kings of Europe. That will grate on a Racing side denied at the death in Bilbao by a couple of late penalties in the Champions Cup final and it certainly is not the sense one gets listening to Munster players after their PRO14 semi-final heartbreak in Dublin.
If there was a crystallising moment in van Graan’s first half-season at the Munster helm since taking over from Erasmus in mid-November, it was that loss to Leinster, a self-inflicted wound that saw their arch-rivals capitalise both on home advantage and the sloppy execution of their southern neighbours. That defeat has, to a large degree defined Munster’s pre-season, their first under van Graan, giving the head coach the template from which to build for a new campaign and, in one of his most-used expressions, reset to zero in preparation for this weekend’s PRO14 opener against the Cheetahs at Thomond Park.
We as a group did a thorough review of our semi-final exit against Leinster and we know what direction we wanted to go,” the South African said.
“We then had to figure out exactly how we are going to get there and take it step by step. We put in a process to guide us and hopefully we can move our game forward over the coming season while never losing our Munster DNA.”
So what did that semi-final review reveal to the Munster management?
“I think our biggest thing is you’ve got to be able to win away,” van Graan said. “Both semi-finals we played last year were away and the team that won the double had two home semi-finals. So the big takeaway is you’ve got to perform throughout the season to be able to earn a home semi-final.
“And then the execution of the individual. If the individual can’t execute then your team falls down in big moments and in big plays. One example is the catch-and-pass, that’s been well-documented.
It’s not going to be perfect from day one, it’s a work in progress and hopefully with nine months of doing it consistently we’ll change habits and hopefully if we get the opportunity to play in a big game at the end of the season it will come through.
Meanwhile, Cheetahs’ coach Franco Smith admits his team has been stripped of valuable experience and that they will have to punch above their weight when their PRO14 campaign kicks off this weekend. His team performed admirably in their maiden appearance in the competition last season‚ but since then their stars have packed for greener pastures.
“Of the 23 that played in the Currie Cup final in 2016 we have five left. That leaves us with a bit of a challenge‚” Smith sighed.
Despite their late inclusion a year ago‚ he wistfully reflected on the preparation his team had then.
“We had players who were in-form. Up to that point we had won 17 Currie Cup games in a row.
“Over a period of three years we had built a lot of experience. We had players who had particular qualities to do a job.
Now we have a lot of players who have not played in this competition before. Because we were under pressure to make the play-offs a lot of the players who have to play now‚ did not play last season. The players we’ve lost have basically taken that experience with them.
“Experience means exactly that. You have to experience something to be experienced. They leave a massive gap.”
Given the demands they face in the PRO14 and the Currie Cup‚ the Cheetahs’ pre-season preparation was a little different. They had five weeks off over May and June.
“All the South African teams are coming towards the end of their season having played between 25 and 29 matches. We are at the start of our season that will comprise around 26‚ 27 matches.
“We have a long season ahead of us and while I’m satisfied with our levels of fitness we won’t be as sharp as you’d be at the end of a season.
“You look at the Crusaders who over the years will go stop-start‚ and even go on a losing streak before they turn their season around.”