Thursday 23 January 2020

Van Graan happy as Munster return to winning ways

CJ Stander (right) and Jack ’Donoghue of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander (right) and Jack ’Donoghue of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

There was a country mile on the happiness index between Andy Friend and Johann van Graan in Galway on Saturday night. The Connacht coach was expressing relief that from a game they planned on winning at least they snaffled a losing bonus point. Van Graan meantime was trying to keep the smile off his face. Connacht had been poor; Munster, on lots of fronts, were very good.

Their respective moods had been shaped by round two of the Christmas interpros next weekend. If in Limerick over the next few days you find the seat pulled from under you then it will have been requisitioned for use at Thomond Park for the visit of Leinster.

High-flying, freewheeling Leinster. The place will be jammed.  And an increasingly potent Munster combination will have, among others, the services of Joey Carbery coming off the bench, easing them out of the night sweats they have endured over finding fit bodies at outhalf.

The drive to Belfast is one Connacht tend to make in trepidation. Fourteen months ago they bridged a gap going back to 1960 when their forwards dominated the home eight for a fine win. More recently they have been struggling for domestic bliss, getting a tonking from Leinster last month before Munster arrived on Saturday to give them some more hurry-up.

“We got together as a group on Monday afternoon,” Van Graan said. “We as a group said that you have back your performances up after Europe. We had two massive weeks against Saracens, two big battles and the team know how good Connacht are here.

“They haven’t lost here for a very long time and even some of the top European teams have come second here and we knew that we needed to play well and we prepared really well. All credit to the playing group.

“I thought our play went pretty well. We put them under pressure. I thought we put a lot of pressure on their lineout. We did one or two things different defensively which I thought put them under pressure.”

Moreover the next wave of players in red landed on the right beach. Shane Daly exploded onto a ball in the second half looking like he would score without breaking stride. He didn’t, but that wasn’t his fault.

Having already passed the 50 games mark for Munster, Dan Goggin is hardly a novice but still he’s next generation compared to the Murrays and O’Mahonys. He looked good alongside Chris Farrell.

Speaking of Murray, the first starting slot for Craig Casey couldn’t have gone much better for a player whose game management and basic skills are real assets.  Munster got their aggression and accuracy perfect.

“There are moments in big games where you need to be able to take your opportunities and take the points because it means so much,” Ultan Dillane said. “But we released pressure time and time again whether it was a set-piece issue or open play with unforced errors. It cost us greatly in the end.”

Munster didn’t. Their drive for a try for Jack O’Donoghue on 25 minutes was the perfect illustration of what Dillane was talking about. And it was key in carrying Munster to a halftime lead of 16-9, where JJ Hanrahan and Conor Fitzgerald had been knocking over all the points.

The second half was hardly started when Connacht announced there would be no quick turnaround. Munster gave them the opportunity to get some territory and control but via another botched lineout they handed it back.

So men in red advanced into the scoring zone where Hanrahan picked off another three points. A try from Jack Carty, who did well off the bench, was the best Connacht could manage – securing the bonus point for them.

“In the context of the group we knew that if we didn’t win tonight we’d go back to number two and we want to stay on top – we want to win this pool,” Van Graan said.

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