Munster put the “Sold Out” signs up at Thomond Park yesterday as supporters snapped up the last of the tickets for the Heineken Champions Cup pool finale with Exeter Chiefs but it is the penultimate game this Friday night that is occupying Johann van Graan.
With just four points separating Munster in first place and Gloucester in fourth, Pool 2 is, in the words of the head coach “on a knife-edge” with two games to go. So while the bean-counters at the Irish province rub their hands at a 26,267 sell-out on January 19, team management and players must travel to Gloucester this weekend with their focus firmly fixed on round five and making sure there is something to play for in front of the home crowds eight days later.
Nor will a squad nursing an array of bangs and knocks after a bruising trilogy of interprovincial derbies over the festive period dictate selection thoughts with the English league leaders visiting Limerick in round six. If Munster do not return from Kingsholm on Friday night with a victory, the final game could be too late to make a comeback in the race to land a quarter-final berth.
“There’s no eyes on Exeter at this stage, only Gloucester,” van Graan said yesterday. “This is knockout rugby in Europe. We’re in a good position (on 12 points in the pool) with the fact we’ve got four points on Gloucester and Exeter (in third), but only three on Castres. Castres play against Exeter so we’ve got to run our own race.
“I learned this last year in our game against Racing (in Paris in round five). Even though we lost the game, we picked up that bonus point. I think we lost 34-30 and that we took that point into the last round, got five points in the last round (against Castres) and that put us through for a home quarter-final.
“So just only worry about Friday night and follow our process through the week, prepare ourselves mentally and physically for a massive battle.”
Gloucester are very much in the old foes category of Munster’s European heritage and this will be a first visit to Kingsholm since the corresponding round in January 2014, when Peter O’Mahony led Rob Penney’s side to a 20-7 victory en route to a semi-final in Marseille against Toulon.
There could be as many as eight survivors from that evening five years ago if O’Mahony and Keith Earls recover from the knocks they sustained in the PRO14 win at Connacht last Saturday night but whoever van Graan selects, it will be the South African’s first visit to the home of the Cherry and Whites and the head coach made no secret of both his and the squad’s enthusiasm for the task ahead.
“There’s no lack of motivation or excitement for this week. I think the key from the coaching point of view is to actually hold them back and not to waste unnecessary energy before we take the field on Friday night.
“This is a game all teams love to play in, and that’s why you play in Europe, for these opportunities. Bar maybe two pools, all pools are so evenly poised and it’s literally on a knife-edge, both ways.
“Our pool, the fact we lost the away one to Castres brought two other teams into it and now over the next two weekends, it’s which one of those four teams play the best within the 80 minutes. That’s exciting and if you’re in rugby and in sport you have to embrace these moments. You can’t inspire out of fear. We’ve got to inspire ourselves.
“I’ve never been to that stadium before but what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, it’s an incredible place, it’s a sell-out and it’s Munster versus Gloucester. There’s so much history between the clubs so it will be a fantastic rugby occasion on Friday night.
“I’ve said it so many times before, that’s why I came to the northern hemisphere, for days like Friday evening. You’ve got the best players in both leagues that are going to go for each other and the winner over the next two weeks between the four teams, there’s a quarter-final spot available so we have to look forward to it.”
As well as a shared history over eight previous meetings in Europe, there will be plenty of familiarity between the two sides after Munster’s 36-22 home win in round two, when Gloucester played more than 50 minutes with 14 men after the sending off of fly-half Danny Cipriani.
Both coaches are South Africans with Gloucester boss Johann Ackermann likely to unleash a second row of new signing Franco Mostert and former Munster lock Gerbrandt Grobler, both of whom are well known to van Graan.
The Munster head coach agreed there would be plenty of motivation for Grobler having been in the opposite camp last season.
“I spoke to him after the home game and he only came off the bench for a few minutes and obviously it was a game at Thomond Park that he really wanted to play.
“I imagine if he gets selected, he’ll really want to play well against Munster. He left here on a very good foot and he’s friends with a lot of guys here, a lot of guys stay in contact.
“It will be a huge game for him if he gets selected.
“I’m sure that his kick-off abilities, lineout abilities, and ball-carrying abilities will be well-utilised but I don’t know if he’ll play or not.
“I imagine it’s a game he’d really like to play in.”