Hope more than expectation for Munster after Sarries reawaken interest

Munster have reached one objective in this Heineken Champions Cup campaign by beating Saracens for the first time in five years last Saturday.

Hope more than expectation for Munster after Sarries reawaken interest

Munster have reached one objective in this Heineken Champions Cup campaign by beating Saracens for the first time in five years last Saturday.

Yet it will take another victory over the defending champions in London today for there to be any genuine sense of achievement for Johann van Graan and his revamped coaching ticket.

The round-three win over the English Premiership giants at Thomond Park seven days ago will have given the head coach only momentary satisfaction when taking into account that Saracens sent over an understrength side which needed to be beaten more handily than was managed in a 10-3 home victory.

Understrength should not be misunderstood as weak but the win will not have avenged comprehensive semi-final defeats to them in 2017 and last May.

Nor will the losing bonus point they took back to London from Limerick have been easy to swallow, whatever the difficulties presented by atrocious weather conditions.

Munster created enough try-scoring opportunities in the first half, before the bad weather blew in, to have at least denied Saracens that match point.

It is a point which leaves them just five points adrift of second-placed Munster with two home ties remaining in their final three games, one of which will bring leaders Racing 92 to north London in round six.

The narrow margin of defeat for his second string has also renewed Mark McCall’s interest in this competition, convincing him that qualification for the quarter-finals is still a possibility, to the extent that he has recalled a number of his World Cup stars to the fray this weekend rather than keep them in cotton wool for the Premiership survival challenge they face domestically following a 35-pointdeduction for salary cap breaches.

The return of stars of the calibre of World Cup winner Vincent Koch and a sextet of runners-up in Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly, has seriously upped the ante for van Graan, who must also negotiate a fifth-round trip to Racing on January 12 in Munster’s knife-edge bid to reach the knockout stages for a record 19th season.

To win today against the odds, then, would be a bit special for a group of coaches who have only been working together for a matter of weeks since forwards coach Graham Rowntree joined the ticket following the World Cup and linked up with van Graan and senior coach Stephen Larkham.

“Certainly from a club perspective we as a group said when the draw came out that they’re a team we haven’t won against since 2014 and we’ve done that over the weekend,” van Graan said of ticking the first box.

“To go away to a team like Saracens, only Clermont have managed to beat them (at Allianz Park) so a massive challenge ahead and I think the important thing from our side is to stick to the process and we shouldn’t focus on a win or a loss or a bonus point or four tries.

“You’ve got to go out there and play well and I think that’s something we are looking to improve. As you would have seen we are playing more but also finding a balance and hopefully winning the game.”

Hope will certainly override expectation for Munster in the English capital this afternoon.

Van Graan is overseeing a work in progress with this major reboot in attacking style and he hinted that this pool of death that his squad find themselves in has come too soon for them to give a proper account of themselves.

Certainly, the home draw with Racing in round two and the failure to extinguish Saracens’ hopes last weekend has been proof of that.

“We, as a coaching group spoke about it, the players that went to the World Cup are only here for four weeks, this is their fifth week,” van Graan said on Tuesday.

Two new coaches in and like I said at the beginning of the season, you wish that you were already a year down the track.

“We’re literally only a month down the track, I think they came in on November 4 and today is December 10 and they already all had one week off.

“There’s still a long way to go in terms of perfection.”

With a home advantage that has only been negated once since their move to the 4G surface at Allianz Park, by Clermont in December 2017 and a suffocating defensive system that has made many more teams than Munster look decidedly average in the imagination stakes, this is indeed a tall order that van Graan conceded this week will need something close to the perfection he is seeking.

Munster are nowhere near that level just yet but if the glimpses of invention, ambition and adventure they have already shown this season are a guide, then they are at least capable of posing Saracens questions they have not previously been able to ask.

That would be a measure of progress in itself.

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