Munster head coach Johann van Graan knows all there is to know about South Africa’s major domestic competition, the Currie Cup. Given that the Cheetahs — one of his side’s two Guinness PRO14 opponents over the next fortnight — were recently crowned champions of the 130-year-old tournament, he is aware of the challenge awaiting his team.
They meet the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Saturday and six days later face the Cheetahs at altitude in Bloemfontein. You suspect from listening to van Graan that Munster would happily return with a share of the spoils, with the Cheetahs particularly dangerous opponents. A 48-14 thrashing of an admittedly very understrength Glasgow Warriors last Friday, to follow their domestic triumph, is ample demonstration of that. The return home of the great Springbok and former Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar has been hugely influential in their success.
“The team that beat Glasgow is the same as recently won the Currie Cup bar one or two players,” warns van Graan. “They’ve beaten everyone in South Africa, I saw the game in which they put 48 points on Glasgow. Ruan Pienaar is now their captain and has made a massive difference. Franco Smith (former Springbok and set to replace Conor O’Shea as coach of Italy after the World Cup) is a very astute coach and I believe he is staying on for another few weeks after our game making for continuity from the Currie Cup into the PRO14.
“But that game is in two weeks’ time so we’ve got to give the Kings the respect they deserve first. We are taking 28 players. We targeted this block in the belief that we would win our first game and hopefully get one or two results in South Africa because we knew we were going to face two teams that have come through a Currie Cup.”
Van Graan may continue with Tyler Bleyendaal at centre where he scored a fine try against Dragons.
“It’something I’ve done before, I like to have two receivers, especially two fly-halves, and then we have Dan Goggin and Sammy Arnold ready to go as well. It’s important to get the balance right. When all our centres are available, we will get him back to 10.”
Nick McCarthy made a satisfactory debut but with Conor Murray the automatic scrum-half, the former Leinster player still faces a massive challenge.
“Nick bought into Munster straight away. It was an especially difficult one for a nine in Saturday’s conditions and he has raised the standards even further. There’s fierce competition at nine with Jack Stafford, Craig Casey, Neil Cronin, Alby Mathewson and we’ll rotate them around over the next few weeks.”