Johann van Graan defended his decision not to start Simon Zebo in yesterday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92.
The Munster head coach relegated the full-back to the bench when he named his matchday squad for the trip to Stade Chaban-Delmas but as Racing ran riot in the first 30 minutes to open up a 24-3 half-time lead, and the Irishmen were forced to chase the game, Zebo was thrown on after just 42 minutes and quickly reminded both the boss and the thousands of travelling supporters just what they had been missing.
The Racing-bound full-back provided a spark to Munster’s attack and scored their opening try on 62 minutes before providing a great kick for starting full-back Andrew Conway to run onto and score the province’s third in the 80th minute. Too little too late but van Graan insisted he had no regrets about his selection.
“Not at all. I thought the seven replacements all made a huge impact. We always knew this game was going to go right to the end. We did not plan to be in a position where we were 24-3 down. That was not part of the plan. The impacts did a brilliant job.
“The clock caught us at the end. Two or three minutes more, maybe we had an opportunity. But there are no excuses on my side. We weren’t good enough on the day and to let a team score three tries in the first 20 minutes of a European Cup semi-final, you are going to struggle to win it.
“I am very proud of the way the guys reacted at half-time. They kept going. Unfortunately we came up short.”
Van Graan agreed with captain Peter O’Mahony that the opening salvo from Racing, during which Teddy Thomas scored twice and presented a third try to Maxime Machenaud inside 22 minutes, had been enabled by Munster’s poor defensive effort and breakdown work.
Yet he said there was much for him to learn and take positives from in this his first Champions Cup campaign having taken over the reins from Rassie Erasmus in mid-November.
“Firstly that this is an incredible competition. It really tests you,” van Graan said.
“Like I said, the two Leicester battles, the Racing battle at the U Arena, the Castres game, the quarter-final and the semi-final, I think what I’ll take out of it is that small moments win big games.
“And unfortunately over the course of the 80 minutes we didn’t use all of our small moments.
“I thought we had a willingness to play today and we said that after this game that we wouldn’t have any regrets in terms of our attack. We weren’t as clinical as we could have been and we knew that we came up against a fantastic set-piece and breakdown and in big games you need to be at your best.
“And like I said if we were totally out-played and didn’t create opportunities, I’d be a worried man.
“But incredibly proud of the team and the way they kept their heads, possibly you could take (concede) 50 (points) in a situation like that but we stuck to our plan, I thought we got a bit of ascendancy in the second half and after 60 minutes I thought we had one or two opportunities.
“I thought the last 10 minutes we created multiple opportunities and like I said, the clock caught us unfortunately.
“I’ve learned an incredible lot about myself and the coaching team, the players, the management and the club, and maybe just a word to all those supporters, we couldn’t ask for anything more and the players give their all but unfortunately we just came up short.”
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