Johann van Graan is planning a revolution in the provincial hierarchy and there would be no better time to rally the downtrodden Munster masses, storm the palace gates of the RDS on Saturday and overthrow Irish rugby’s ruling elite.
There is never too much motivation required in the red quarter of this island when Leinster are the opposition but the Blues’ success in landing a fourth European title in Bilbao last Saturday with their Champions Cup final victory over Racing 92 has added another level ambition for a Munster side whose search for silverware has come up short for the last seven years.
Captain Peter O’Mahony admitted to jealousy when the L word came up this week as he looked forward to this Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final in Dublin and the chance to be first team to take the newly-minted kings of Europe down a peg or two.
His head coach, seeking a first final since arriving at Munster from the South African set-up last November having lost to Racing in the Champions Cup semi-final last month, also recognised both the size of the challenge facing his side and the opportunity in this win or bust contest.
“We have a saying, ‘If you want to be king, you have got to go and beat the king in his castle’,” van Graan said. “Leinster are the kings at this stage so as I say this is a good opportunity to go and measure ourselves against the best.”
Reeling off the scalps on Leinster’s unbeaten road to the San Mamés Stadium, it would be easy to infer that the Munster boss was getting his excuses in early ahead of Saturday’s PRO14 showdown.
Yet he is insisted he was not in any way daunted by the examination awaiting his squad.
“Obviously it’s a challenge with our opponents coming up and we give them all the credit that they deserve. They beat Montpellier twice, and they ended up at the top of the Top 14. They beat Exeter twice and they ended up at the top of the Premiership. They’ve beaten Saracens, the champions, and they’ve beaten Scarlets, the champions of the PRO14, so deservedly, they are champions.
The same applied to van Graan’s players, whom he said had needed no persuasion that they are capable of defeating their oldest rivals.
“I don’t need to convince them. They believe it. This is a club that believes in themselves. We cannot control the opposition. In this case, it is Leinster and while we give them all the credit that is due, the players believe it themselves, and they said after the Racing game that they want to win a trophy.
“In order to do that, we need to get past opponents in the semi-final, it’s Leinster on Saturday afternoon.
“We believe we can do it, that is the only thing we can control.”
The concept of being daunted, of course, stems from the assumption of inferiority and as far as van Graan is concerned, that is not a characteristic he recognises in himself or his team, despite Leinster doing the double over Munster in the league this season, 23-17 at the Aviva Stadium on October 7, and the only home defeat of the campaign, a 34-24 at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day.
“I’ve only coached against Leinster once and they had a very good first half and we had a very good second half. You can’t deny the fact that over the last nine years, they’ve won the Champions Cup the most but going back to PRO14, one point separated the two sides throughout the whole season, we’ve played the same amount of games. They’ve had some really good games and some average games, so have we. My belief in rugby is that every week’s different. This is a whole new ball game.
“Obviously they’re the favourites playing at home and champions of Europe but that’s the beauty of sport and the beauty of the human spirit, it’s a new game, new ball, new referee, new teams, and looking forward to it very much.”
The former Springboks assistant coach has admired Leinster’s ability to stay focused in their successes this season, keeping emotion out of their decision-making. It is even a trait he revealed in himself in the way he viewed Saturday’s events in Bilbao.
“I didn’t watch the game live. I watched it afterwards, to make sure your emotions did not become part of it.”
Yet whether van Graan likes it or not, frustration will play a huge part in fuelling Munster this weekend.
The semi-final that got away as soon as it had begun in Bordeaux, and the sight of Leinster achieving what they could not.
“After the game, you have emotions and frustrations. Knockout games are huge. We have been on the wrong end of one or two games, but that is the beauty of sport, we are getting into these games but it is our job as coaches and management and players to get to the next level. The only thing we can do is get into a final. We cannot win a trophy if you are not in a final. The semi-final coming up, that is the only thing we are focusing on.”
South Africa official Berry breaking new ground
Stuart Berry (SARU) will create history on Saturday, when he becomes the first South African official to referee a knockout game in the Guinness PRO14. He takes charge of the Irish derby semi-final, between Leinster and Munster.
Berry has the experience of over 30 Super Rugby games, before he joined the Championship this season, and he has quickly established himself among the top referees.
Berry will be assisted by Ben Whitehouse (WRU), and Craig Evans (WRU), with Neil Paterson (SRU) serving as the television match official.
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