Earls: Van Graan hasn’t put his stamp on us yet

Keith Earls: Believes Munster can again scale European heights

Keith Earls has had better Mondays.

The wound from Munster’s exit from the Champions Cup the day before wasn’t so much raw as still oozing blood yesterday and he had swapped the buzz of a radiant Bordeaux 24 hours earlier for a damp Dublin to honour a pre-existing commitment.

One of four nominees for this year’s Irish rugby Player of the Year, he was promoting the annual Zurich awards on the back of a fractured night’s sleep before facing into the inevitable inquisition as to what exactly happened in France and why.

“I can’t even remember what happened in the first half,” he said at one point.

Munster knew that Racing scored the bulk of their tries in the first quarter, and that they had been slow from the blocks of late themselves, and they were still powerless to prevent the Top14 side from generating that early momentum.

Earls’ first instinct was to wonder if Munster’s relative lack of size is an issue at this juncture for a side that has now lost their last six European Cup semi-finals and he accepts that their attacking game will probably have to evolve too.

The notion that they are lacking a handful of players to break this glass ceiling wasn’t entertained. Earls has faith in this squad as it is and he brushed aside suggestions that their two-week trek around South Africa had any detrimental effect.

In a way, Sunday was just one of those days. Some key individuals didn’t perform as they can, players slipped off tackles, the lineout malfunctioned at crucial times... That list could go on but his take on the bigger picture is more interesting.

At one point, Earls mentioned the fact that he hadn’t spent more than two years working under the same Munster head coach. He’s wrong there. Tony McGahan spent four seasons at the helm but the wider point rings with truth.

Since McGahan left in 2012, Munster have had Rob Penney, Anthony Foley, Rassie Erasmus and now Johann van Graan in charge. The latest incumbent is clearly going to need more than five months to engineer the changes that he feels will be required.

“He hasn’t even put his stamp on us yet,” said Earls. “Obviously, the next couple of weeks are going to be massive and the pre-season is going to be massive when it comes to Johann’s gameplan and whatever he wants.”

Van Graan’s lack of time in the country can only explain so much though. Going down 24-3 to those three tries was disappointing but the manner of Munster’s response for the remainder of the half was puzzling, bordering on inexplicable.

Kicking to the corner when three points were on offer was one thing but attempting drop goals just a handful of phases earlier was suggestive of a side panicked by their unexpected predicament and scrambling to play catch-up.

“We obviously had a gameplan. We knew they were a big side. We have played them many times before and we knew they could get tired in the last 20 or 30 minutes. That was the plan, to tire them out.

“And I suppose you get a feel of the game as well. We were down seven points quite early so (that informed) the decision to go to the corner. We back our decisions all the time and we back our maul. It was another one of those days.”

One problem with utilising the lineout so often was Donnacha Ryan.

Their old chum denied CJ Stander a try off one such setpiece and he was a general pain in the backside off the Munster throw-in. Earls lauded the impact his friend’s workrate, studious attention to detail and intelligence has had on Racing.

When the game was done, the Nenagh lock spent a good hour in the Munster dressing-room, loitering and commiserating and chatting away even as the Racing bagman pleaded with him to hit the showers and make for the bus.

“Casey Laulala came in as well,” said Earls. “With Munster you’ll always feel a part of it. I’d say it was very emotional for Donnacha because when he was here ... he’s a Munster man. He’s Munster mad.

“When we got to the semi-finals (before) he was like, ‘this team can win something’. Then, unfortunately, he left. He loved the squad we had. He was the older fella and he was constantly coaching the younger lads.”

Earls wouldn’t dismiss any side boasting Ryan in its ranks but he expects Leinster to complete their unbeaten European campaign in Bilbao next month. Should Munster win their PRO14 quarter-final they will meet Leinster in the last four in Dublin.

Still plenty to play for, then.

“Well, if we get a trophy this year it’s success but everyone wants Europe and everyone in Munster wants Europe. I think we have the squad and, with good consistency, hopefully we can get a step closer.”


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