It took four attempts and the accumulation of an awful lot of emotional baggage but now this Munster team can prepare for a final in the knowledge they had the mental strength to conquer the obstacle that had for so long blocked their path.
There is one more hurdle to clear before they can lay claim to a first trophy in 10 years and it is a significant one with their Guinness PRO14 final opponents for March 27 decided last Saturday night when Leinster overcame Ulster in Belfast to book a fourth consecutive final spot.
Yet head coach Johann van Graan can savour for a little while longer the first step of the mission his players completed the previous night when Munster saw off Connacht 20-17 at Thomond Park to secure top spot in Conference B with two games to spare.
A defeat to the westerners would not have been a disaster with Munster having the leeway to get the job done at home on consecutive Friday nights against either Scarlets this weekend or Benetton seven days later. Yet the pressure would have ramped up considerably with Connacht breathing down their necks at the top of the table and the ticking clock getting louder.
Munster did get it done though and doing so at the first opportunity was significant for van Graan, who framed this regular-season contest very much as another semi-final. Having lost three in a row to Leinster at the last-four stage since succeeding Rassie Erasmus, van Graan will have been relieved as anybody in the Munster camp on Friday night. The performance was far from pretty in a pulsating derby but secondary to the spoils this narrow victory brought.
“It was always going to be a big tussle and from my point of view, we said that mentally this was a big hurdle to cross, to not let it wait for another week or potentially another week.
“So, I’m really happy for the group and all the work that they’ve done. We’re in a final with two weeks to spare so all credit to the team. If you just look at some of our performances under pressure over the last three years after some of the semi-finals I said that our performances weren’t good enough and it’s brilliant that you literally put in nine or 10 months of work, do your planning, get the buy-in from the group.
“We’re in this competition to win it but to win it you’ve got to get into a final and we fell at the semi-final hurdle a few times so I’m really happy with crossed the hurdle.”
Now comes the challenge of getting the right balance in team selection in order to beat a Leinster side that has dominated this rivalry in recent years, their January 23 win in Limerick a fifth on the bounce. Munster also have a European Round of 16 home tie the week after the PRO14 final with the Champions Cup revised knockout draw taking place this Thursday and the juggling act has already begun in van Graan’s mind with many of his frontline players on Six Nations duty up to the Saturday before the decider.
“You don’t know how guys come back from the national team, they have two big Test matches coming up. Obviously we have a pretty good idea what our best XV and our best 23 looks like, but those answers will only be answered on the Monday after the England Test when those lads come back and then we will take stock and see where we are at.”
- A PRO14 source said it was “99% certain” Leinster, with the higher points total would host the March 27 final with a 5pm kick-off.