Aching limbs and sore muscles mingled with broad smiles at Munster’s high-performance centre in UL yesterday, as all involved with Saturday’s win over Leinster reflected on an occasion that will live long in the memory.
However, there was little time to extend the celebrations, given they were preparing for Saturday’s visit to Galway and another crucial Guinness PRO14 clash with in-form Connacht.
“Saturday was very emotional,” said head coach Johann van Graan. “It was a really bruising encounter and there are quite a few stiff and sore bodies and that’s what you expect when two top quality teams go at each other for 80 minutes. It was a real dogfight. Both teams wanted to win and both gave it their all until the very last second. I still think we were the better team for 80 minutes, although with a lot of improvement still to come from our side.”
Van Graan stayed well away from the disciplinary lapses that cost Leinster so seriously, preferring instead to praise his own players for the way they handled a series of difficult situations.
We didn’t concede any card and our opposition gave away two yellows and a red. Leinster are not the European and PRO14 champions for nothing. They are such a difficult team to break down in any part of the game. The fact that we kept 15 on the field was a real positive from our side. I’d like to think we kept our cool over the last three weeks.
Given that the citing commissioners stated that two Castres players should have been red-carded in the recent European Cup game and that a member of the Ulster team should have also seen red in the first few seconds of the pre-Christmas PRO14 encounter, Munster had a change of luck in that regard with Saturday’s dismissal of James Lowe.
I’d like to say again, in a rugby game you want to play 15 v 15, that’s how we play the game,” said van Graan. “In a perfect world, that’s what you want. You can’t control the referee and you can’t control decisions off the field. All we can control is what we do. I think the officials handled it well over the weekend.
“In all the Munster-Leinster games that I have been involved in, emotions have been pretty high. This was a special evening at Thomond Park. Credit to Leinster, they fought to the last minute and they are such a quality side... when you get two teams that won’t back off an inch, you of course get some big collisions and some big moments. Like I said, I thought for most of the game we kept our cool and I was happy with our discipline. We were penalised for a few things which will happen in a game of rugby, but I think both sets of players wanted to be in a contest and I think they were.
“I always enjoy it. I love it. If you don’t, why are you in the game... a sold-out Thomond Park and you play against the European champions. We did it without Pete [O’Mahony], but it was brilliant to have him as a water carrier and it was important for the growth of the guys, who haven’t played together a lot, I’m thinking of a guy like Jeremy Loughman, Kevin O’Byrne and Fineen [Wycherley], so it is brilliant to put those players in those positions.
As we said before the game, it’s how you measure yourself against the best. They are by far still the best team in European rugby at this stage and we know we will have to improve our game to get to their level.
Although Chris Cloete was still having scans last night on the knock that ended his direct interest in Saturday’s game, the news concerning the South African’s badly-bruised neck is encouraging.
“Yeah, he is very sore, but thankfully he’s walking around and it’s not as serious as it looked on Saturday. It looks like he won’t be available this week and there are quite a few knocks and bruises. I think the whole team has gotten something somewhere. Both teams were really climbing into each other, but I think most guys will be available for selection [for the Connacht game]. Chris Farrell might be back and Rhys Marshall is back on the field. Liam O’Connor is back training, which is great news after his horrific knee injury last year, but James Cronin, Brian Scott and Dave O’Callaghan will still be out for quite a bit of time, so some you win and some you lose.”
Now that Munster are only two points behind Conference A leaders Glasgow and just three ahead of Connacht, Saturday’s game is hugely important and comes only a week before they take on Gloucester in the European Cup at Kingsholm.
“We always knew this was going to be a massive game in terms of the conference, said van Graan. “You also want to build into Gloucester next week, so we might rotate within the 23, but I don’t foresee a lot of changes.”