Munster 14 Racing 7: Heart, guts, belief. Rassie Erasmus neatly summarised the attributes in the Munster squad that he hands over to Johann van Graan over the next month or so and which his successor saw at first hand on an archetypal European night at Thomond Park.
Munster ground out a priceless and essential home win to build on their Champions Cup first-round draw at Castres six days earlier. Conor Murray broke an hour-long deadlock with a charge-down of Maxime Machenaud’s kick from the back of a scrum that the Irishman chased, expertly lifting the ball off his bootstraps to score the first five points of a rain-sodden arm-wrestle.
Another try 10 minutes later from substitute wing Andrew Conway, both converted by Ian Keatley gave Munster the cushion they needed and though Racing hit back with a Leone Nakawara try, converted by Teddy Iribaren, the home side defended with heart and resolve to see the job through and claim four points with the concession of a losing bonus point to the visitors.
“A bit of luck, a charge-down and a lot of guts,” Erasmus said when asked what got his side through.
There are other qualities van Graan will discover as the former Springboks assistant eases into his new role as head coach sometime next month, subject to the granting of a work permit.
Yet what his future charges displayed in overcoming a big, powerful and expensively assembled French team on a wild and windy evening in Limerick ensured the incoming boss was given a taste of Munster rugby at its most elemental.
A hard-fought victory that keeps Pool 4 on a knife-edge following two rounds of nip and tuck that leaves Munster and Leicester level on five points with Racing one behind and Castres on three gives the back-to-back, home and away December games with the Tigers in rounds three and four a pivotal significance.
Whether van Graan is in sole charge by then or part of a transitional double act with his compatriot Erasmus is still unclear, certainly in the mind of the latter, who looked back at what could have been his final European game with some emotion.
Erasmus has promised to facilitate a smooth takeover with the 37-year-old van Graan before he leaves to become South Africa’s director of rugby and during his post-match press conference he showed that despite only spending 18 months of his three-year contract in charge of Munster, the parting of the ways may be more difficult that has been imagined.
Asked if it will be tough for him not to be in the thick of things as Munster aim to close out the pool stages, possibly in December and certainly in January’s rounds five and six, Erasmus said: “Very, it’s going to be very tough. Today was also tough, I’m going to miss it a lot. I’ll miss the players, the fans, the atmosphere.”
As to whether Racing will prove to be his final European opponents, he replied: “I’m still not 100% sure. Johann was here and he must still get a work permit.
“The exact date when he is released from South Africa is not clear yet and then when he comes here, apart from this week, we want to make sure that he’s 100% comfortable, the players are comfortable and the club is comfortable.
“I might be still involved for those (Leicester) games, but I think the time is coming closer now.”
After a week of shadowing Erasmus in Limerick as Munster prepared to face the 2016 French champions and European runners-up, van Graan got his first taste of Thomond Park on Saturday and the outgoing director of rugby thinks the experience will have given the incoming boss a real understanding of what is he is getting himself into.
Having been relieved to escape Castres with a draw after a nervy final 10 minutes in France, Munster found themselves under the cosh once more during an absorbing yet scoreless first hour that saw Racing dominate possession and the home side holding firm in defence having failed to make the most of a bright start as they passed up kickable penalties in search of tries.
When the points did arrive it was the result, as Racing defence coach Ronan O’Gara put it, of “incessant pressure”, Munster finally finding some rhythm with ball in hand while also playing higher up the pitch, Ian Keatley’s kicks keeping the visitors pinned behind their 10-metre line.
Somone had to blink first and it was Racing, off their own scrum ironically, as Murray anticipated Machenaud’s clearance and reaped the rewards.
Keatley would blot his copybook with a missed penalty from a central position but atoned with a couple of touchfinders that would lead to Conway’s killer finish in the corner, and a touchline conversion that gave his side a valuable cushion.
What would van Graan made of it all, the current boss was asked in the new man’s absence: “If Johann saw that today, that’s what he’s going to get when he comes here. He’s going to get a bunch of guys who really play for the club, supporters who support the team through good and bad times so I think maybe the weather might have frightened or put him off a little. He observed or shadowed us the whole week, so he was part of most of the sessions and stuff. He’s got a good understanding of what we do.”
Keatley, playing with a smile on his face, in part due to his becoming a father to daughter Beth recently, believes Munster have over the past week given van Graan a taste of what the province is all about.
“We gave him a little flavour of what it is like and we were talking to him last night and he said there were a few key words that were brought forward to him about what Munster was like and he said that was the reason that really drew him here to Munster and obviously it is a good to put in a good first performance for him to watch us live.”
What those key words Van Graan was told, Keatley declined to disclose, although he joked: “I’m sure stand up and fight was in there. We haven’t had that much interaction with him.
He has talked about signing a three-year contract but he has said that he was thinking well past the three years. He said his whole family is moving over and he is committed to Ireland. That is a sign of a man that is going to commit fully to the club which is great.”
S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway), C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (L O’Connor, 76), R Marshall (K O’Byrne, 61), S Archer (J Ryan, 51); J Kleyn (M Flanagan, 55), B Holland; P O’Mahony captain, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 70), CJ Stander.
P Lambie; J Rokocoko, H Chavancy, A Tuitavke, L Dupichot (A Vulivuli, 57); D Carter (R Tales, 52) , M Machenaud – captain (T Iribaren, 70); E Ben Arous (V Afatia, 51), C Chat (D Szarzewski, 52), B Tameifuna (C Johnston, 51); B Le Roux (E Maka, 71), L Nakarawa; W Lauret, Y Nyanga (B Chouzenoux, 70), A Claassen.
JP Doyle (England)
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