This may be the biggest game of his fledgling career as a head coach but five months into his tenure as Munster boss, Johann van Graan is finally in familiar territory.
A Champions Cup semi-final against French Top14 opposition in Bordeaux tomorrow may not seem like it as Munster bid to halt a losing run of five successive visits to Europe’s final four but there is little facing the South African that he has not already experienced since succeeding Rassie Erasmus in mid-November.
Be it the opposing club, the difficult away fixture or even the world-class quality of the squad lining up against his Munster team at Stade Chaban-Delmas, van Graan and his developing squad have already reached a point in their time together where those boxes have been ticked.
A year on from the abrupt wake-up call provided at the Aviva Stadium in both the Champions Cup semi-final and PRO12 final, Munster face Racing 92 tomorrow with their chests out and tails up. Their buoyancy stems from a spectacularly successful tour of South Africa where even from the comfort of Irish living rooms it was clear that this is a group of players as tightly knit as you could wish for and with a collective determination to march into a first European final since their illustrious predecessors in 2008.
All they need now is an 80-minute performance to showcase those values and mark themselves out as a team that is ready to come of age.
Adding to Munster’s momentum is the Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Toulon’s all-star cast at Thomond Park which, despite the knife-edge nature of that March 31 contest, has instilled the confidence that no matter the size of the reputation standing the other side of that halfway line come kick-off time, the men in red can see that and raise you with heart, resolve and a never-say-die attitude as well as the prerequisite form and pedigree.
This is by no means a gimme for Munster, no game against a French side on home soil could ever be described that way, but having beaten Racing three times out of four in the last two seasons and letting slip a fourth victory in the closing minutes under the roof of the U Arena back in January, there is every hope that van Graan’s matchday squad can approach this contest in businesslike fashion rather than relying purely on raw emotion to see them through.
The Munster boss certainly sees Racing as a proposition akin to the Toulon side his players squeaked past in Limerick three weeks ago and their own quarter-final success at Clermont Auvergne’s Stade Marcel Michelin was a significant marker.
“I think it’s two pretty similar sides. They’ve got world-class players all across the board. I think the off-loading game of some of the Racing forwards is very, very good,” van Graan said.
“I said it the previous time, their line-out contesting is second to the All Blacks, I believe. They really put you under pressure. Then they have players who can deliver big moments: (Maxime) Machenaud at number nine, just look at him in the French team, his goal-kicking, his general distribution. He’s a world-class player.
“I thought (fly half) Patrick Lambie played pretty well in the quarter-final. When you can bring on players like Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko, you know that you’ve got depth in your squad.
“It’s a massive challenge for Munster going to France on a Sunday afternoon and trying to beat them there. It’s one that we’re looking forward to.”
Munster will have to learn some important lessons from the Toulon game for they cannot afford to give another quality team the sort of entry into the game they granted the three-time champions in the opening 20 minutes at Thomond Park, when Chris Ashton came within a whisker of putting the visitors at least 5-0 up in the opening minute and the deficit should have been a lot more dicey than the two Anthony Belleau penalties Fabien Galthie’s side did muster.
“I think we want to start well, it’s a semi-final,” van Graan said with just a hint of understatement.
“We’ve been working very hard on our discipline especially away from home. We only conceded six penalties on the week to our opponents’ 12 (in the 19-17 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein eight days ago).
"In their half, you need to put points-scoring opportunities on the board. I know most of them are clichés but it’s as simple as that. You need to put points on the board against quality teams.”
What van Graan will not need to coax from his players is the warrior spirit he credited them with following that epic quarter-final win.
“I can’t ask for more. The coaching staff, the players and the management team gave their all against Toulon. It turned out to be enough. As a coach, you can’t ask for anything more. What I can ask is we prepare well, we start at zero, we prepare all week. We don’t play the game before Sunday. Everybody gives their all. That’s all I can ask as a coach.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, this will be a massive challenge, this will be bigger than Toulon, we’re going away from home into France on a Sunday afternoon. So this will be a bigger challenge. If we can deliver on Sunday afternoon…”
Well, for starters it would be quite the coup for the new coach and the players he inherited and learned quickly that this group had more than just talent, but also a thirst to do themselves and their province proud.
Those are things no coach can teach.
“It’s firstly in your DNA. It’s in the way that you operate from day to day, I said to the guys way back in November: ‘You don’t become a champion when you get a trophy, you become a champion every single day of your life’.
“So, to us, it’s all about habits. Hopefully our habits will pull us through, it’s no use in a quarter or semi-final week to try and do things differently or then to do the right thing - that’s what gives you confidence is your systems; the fact that you’ve been doing it week in, week out for 42 or 43 weeks - that needs to pull you through.
“This is a special place, a special club with special people and I can’t stress enough the players and management really want to do it and I believe we can.”
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