Munster boss Johann van Graan has challenged his forwards to reach for new heights this weekend in order to counter a Racing 92 lineout defence he rates as second only to the All Blacks.
Head coach van Graan takes his team to Paris on Sunday for the penultimate Champions Cup Pool 4 fixture knowing victory at Racing’s new U Arena will guarantee qualification for the quarter-finals.
Munster lead second-placed Racing by four points and a superior points difference, with even a losing bonus point likely to leave the province top of the pool heading into the round six finale at home to Castres in pole position.
Yet former Springbok forwards coach van Graan knows his pack are set for a battle royal at the set-piece with a lineout set to be spearheaded by former Munster hero and Ireland lock Donnacha Ryan, whose knowledge of his old club’s calls and lineout menu is sure to be mined by the Racing staff.
“That’s the great thing about rugby, Donnacha is on their side and (Munster lock) Gerbrandt Grobler is on our side, having been with Racing before. So I think it’s a bit of tit for tat. Teams are very smart and teams will adapt.
“I’ve never worked with Donnacha but I think he’s a fantastic rugby player, I’ve coached against him. Obviously, he will do what’s best for Racing at this stage. Let me put it to you this way: They are possibly one of the best set-piece teams in Europe. You’ve just got to look at their scrum, look at their lineout.
“I’ve watched them now for quite a while and I believe that after New Zealand they are possibly the best man-watch contesting side in the world. They put your lineout under severe pressure, so we’ll have to be at our best to get some quality ball.”
South African Grobler, 25, has yet to play a competitive game for Munster following his summer move from Racing, having injured an ankle in a pre-season friendly at Worcester last August but is finally in the frame for selection after returning to full training yesterday in Limerick.
“Yes, he is available,” van Graan said of his compatriot.
“Obviously, he hasn’t played for a very long time so we will make a decision on him later in the week. Luckily we have got other competition. But he is a huge part of our squad going forward. He has got an unbelievable amount of talent. I actually coached him a year when he was in school. He had a really good Top14 last year with Racing 92. Once we feel he is ready for a match we will pick him.”
Grobler’s 2016-17 campaign in France followed a two-year suspension he served after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing steroid while playing Currie Cup rugby for Western Province in 2014. Van Graan said he felt the second row had a point to prove as a result of his past mistake.
“I believe life is very simple. All of us sitting here, everybody in life makes mistakes. I believe life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it.
“He served his ban. He’s worked really hard to get back to fitness and then in the warm-up game, which I saw here, he had a big injury and he had to fight his way back.
“Obviously, he wants to achieve a lot of things in his life. He’s such a talented rugby player so for him personally a lot to prove. The ban in my view is a long time in the past. Like I said, every person on this planet makes mistakes, it’s how we come back from them.
“He’s fought through them really well, I thought, and he’s a quality individual so we wish him well in his journey back.”
Grobler’s chance of featuring in the Munster matchday squad may rest on the progress of regular starting lock Billy Holland through his return to play protocols following a concussion sustained in the January 1 loss at Ulster.
Also going through similar protocols after the same game is flanker Chris Cloete but fellow openside Conor Oliver, hooker Rhys Marshall and centre Chris Farrell all showed no ill effects on their returns to action in the home win over Connacht last Saturday night.
“We took him off after 60 minutes, he’s such a vital part,” van Graan said of Farrell. “We only have two centres at this stage, Rory (Scannell) and Chris, so it’s very important, we gave Rory a break and Chris coming back from injury.
“I thought he did really well, so he’s fit, no problems with him, ready to go.”
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