Johann van Graan’s bid to get his first full European campaign off to a winning start could not have come in more difficult circumstances, yet the Munster head coach has learned enough in his short time in charge to expect the unexpected on Heineken Champions Cup away days.
The South African, who succeeded director of rugby and compatriot Rassie Erasmus last November, hit the ground running in last season’s competition, winning home and away in rounds three and four against Leicester Tigers, enough to convince any newcomer of the romantic nature of European club rugby.
A chastening semi-final defeat to Racing 92 in Bordeaux last spring may have taken off a little of the shine, but both van Graan and Munster arrive in the English south-west undaunted by the challenge that awaits in the form of high-flying Exeter Chiefs.
The fixture list could have been kinder than to send the province to Sandy Park, a place that last saw Rob Baxter’s Chiefs defeated on home turf back in February, an arm wrestle lost 5-6 to Donncha O’Callaghan’s
Today’s fare could be equally attritional, given the rain forecast throughout the day and, while that will not worry Munster, it hardly discombobulates Exeter either. Baxter’s men can find different ways to skin a cat.
“They are pretty similar to the Hurricanes in the Southern Hemisphere,” van Graan said of Exeter’s Chiefs. “Even over the weekend the score was pretty tight against Bath and then they went for a scrum, got a penalty, went to the corner flag, kept the ball, scored a try, received the kick-off, actually turned the ball over, lost it, got the ball back and Jack Nowell scored a fantastic 90m try, so that is the danger of them.
“You can be up against them for a long time, but they will always come back. You have to give them credit, it’s a team that has come from the lower leagues and they have built into this championship side.
“I said already last year that it is a team that I respect very much. They know what they are about, they know their home field very, very well and you have to figure out that wind [which swirls around Sandy Park]. If you want a result out of there or even a point out of there, you have to be at your best and that is what we will have to be over the weekend. I say it again, it is a great challenge and one we are looking forward to so much.”
Munster, coming into this game on the back of an encouraging performance, but defeat nonetheless at Leinster last weekend, are boosted by the return of Mike Haley as starting full-back, while the bench is replenished with fit-again hooker Rhys Marshall and scrum-half Neil Cronin.
There are further changes, as van Graan returns Rory Scannell to inside centre, pushing the in-form Dan Goggin out to number 13, while Sammy Arnold moves to the bench as the outside-back replacement, with last week’s back-row substitute Chris Cloete swapping places at openside flanker with Tommy O’Donnell.
The one return Munster supporters are desperate to see has not materialised and, while Conor Murray is out of the number nine jersey, his side are a different beast. That is not to say Duncan Williams, today’s starting scrum-half, is not playing well this season, he is in very good nick, but Murray’s absence gives Exeter and any opposition cheer, while the experience of All Black Alby Mathewson, missing from the matchday squad after a late injury against Leinster, is another blow. Munster need a big game from everyone today, not just Williams, as their head coach will have reminded them with this assessment of Exeter’s attributes.
“They have strengths all over the field. They’ve got a pretty good D. I thought our second-half performance against them in the pre-season [was good]. We attacked pretty well (in a 12-0 home defeat).
“We changed it up a bit at half-time and changed one or two things. They don’t give you lineout. They don’t really kick the ball out, especially with that wind. One of their strong points is that they know exactly how to play on that field and not a lot of teams go and actually win. In terms of the way they kick, I’ve spoken a lot about their attack, but with their kicking game they pin you in your 22. Then, they wait for you to make a mistake and they keep the ball until you either concede a penalty or concede a try, that’s what they are good at. Obviously, we’ve got a certain strength that we showed over the weekend that we want to use and certain parts of our game are ever evolving. It’s a fascinating tussle — like all the games will be in this Heineken Champions Cup — and Exeter are a team we respect a lot.”
As with all pool campaigns, round one is not defining. Exeter need no reminder of that, having started with defeats of Glasgow and Montpellier in France only to lose home and away to Leinster and fail to reach the knockout stages. Van Graan knows there is a long game at play here and, though he will not say it, a losing bonus point may represent a good day’s work in Devon, with today’s opponents expected back in Limerick in mid-January.
“We’ve got an away fixture and a home fixture against them; the first one and the last one,” said the Munster boss. “I’ve been here one year now and, with the Champions Cup, who knows what might happen at that last pool game.”