Four players and a coach with plenty to prove this weekend

1: Johann van Graan

ON A POINT, as autumn gave way to winter, the debate about Stephen Kenny’s future ended and the debate about Johann van Graan began.

For some, Van Graan’s reign was annoying, Keith Wood used the word ‘turgid’ to describe Munster’s recent appearance against Connacht. You could say Wood was generous.

You can’t blame Wood, or anyone else, for criticizing a head coach. After all, the South African was not incorporated into the profession. No, the reality is that once you choose this life, a good salary and a thick skin become part of the job specification. However, if you look in from the outside, it’s pretty clear that Van Graan has two major shortcomings: firstly, the game of rugby Munster isn’t very exciting, but secondly, he’s not one of the good old guys.

What really stands out about the recent analysis is this constant reminder of how good Munster used to be. Such frequent trips down the road of nostalgia make you think that Italia 90 syndrome has been transferred to Munster Rugby. Is their glorious past – from 1999 to 2011 – a nightmare rather than an inspiration for this group of players?

For the record, this current couple isn’t doing too badly – and neither is their coach. While praising Van Graan too harshly poses a health risk, we are willing to accept the abuse. As head coach, he has presided over victories against Exeter, Racing, Leicester, Toulon, Saracens, Clermont and even Leinster on a few occasions. Still, he was faced with calls for his head after the defeat in Connacht. It was only Munster’s second loss of the season.

Qualification to the knockout stages of this season’s Champions Cup is pretty much guaranteed, but even if they win to Castres tonight, you’ll have a good idea of ​​how the win will be estimated, that Castres rarely shows any interest in Europe; that the French chose a weaker side.

Castres are tough to watch (even tougher than Munster has been in recent weeks), but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to beat. They are currently third in the Top14. Should Munster achieve a result, should Van Graan’s Munster do so, then perhaps a bit of honesty should be brought into the discussion! Their coach has done a decent job, taking Munster to five semi-finals and a final in his four seasons – keeping them on track to reach the knockouts this time in both Europe and the URC.

That doesn’t mean they should have a statue of him built outside Thomond Park. But a win tonight should end the debate over his immediate future.

2: Johnny Be Good

Remember Johnny Sexton, 2018 World Player of the Year, captain of Leinster and Ireland, the inspiration behind the 2011 Heineken Cup comeback in the province, the focal point for the teams that have won four European Cups?

He’s on the couch on Sunday. If he comes out, it will be his first taste of European action this season, having played just 28 minutes in the league in 2020/21.

Sexton’s last game for Leinster was in October.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With 176 appearances for the county, it’s fair to say Sexton has provided Leinster with some service. Should he put a Tom Brady on it and lead them to another big trophy in his old age, it would be even fairer to suggest that he is the club’s greatest player ever.

Still, there’s a reason Ross Byrne was selected before him for the Montpellier race. Byrne has played 108 times for the club in the last five years, Sexton only 50. One is a standout legend, the other a stand-in, but the stand-in is the one the Leinster players know. His choice makes sense and reminds Sexton, yes everyone, that you always have to prove yourself, no matter how great your career has been.

3: Finlay Bealham

Until a month ago, a tentative shortlist to discuss Connacht’s player of the year would have included league-leader Mack Hansen, captain Jack Carty, Dave Heffernan, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver and Finlay Bealham. Then Welford Road happened and six names were reduced to five.

That whole episode reminds you that for all the intricacies of rugby, starter moves and trick plays, you can’t really do anything unless your scrum is functioning. Connacht’s did not go to Leicester that day.

Now we can’t just blame Bealham for that. Their scrum continued to crumble after he left the field, but if there’s one person who can fix the problem tomorrow, it’s their underrated Irish tighthead.

This is why the No3s get the big bucks so often.

If Connacht even gets parity in the set piece tomorrow, they will win, effectively securing their passage to the last 16. In more ways than one, a lot weighs on Bealham’s shoulders.


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Leicester led the scrum.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

4: Jack Crowley

At the start of last week’s Ulster match, Jack Crowley tried a little too hard. An ambitious kick went straight into the attack; one ambitious run led to a drop in sales within his own 22. He looked like a lost boy in every way.

But by halftime he grew up. Two nerve-wracking penalties – critical scores considering Munster won by five – were completed with a perfectly placed diagonal kick that brought Ulster back to their five-yard line. In an hour he grew up before our eyes.

And yet this is another test. Castres down the road is a lot more intimidating than facing a smaller crowd in Thomond Park. Coupled with a move to La Rochelle last year, Crowley now gets the chance to showcase his talents in a variety of circumstances on French soil. Munster’s third choice ten has to mature from promising new kid to delivery boy.


Crowley made two kicks before halftime.

5: Nathan Doak

On New Year’s Day, Munster faced a party that had lost their talisman. The same happened last week against Ulster.

On New Year’s Day, Munster’s maul defense was unable to prevent an attempt. Again, different opposition but same problem last weekend.

What did differ was what happened next. Three times Connacht had tough but kickable penalties to extend their lead in the last quarter. Each time they went around the corner while Conor Fitzgerald – Jack Carty’s replacement – ​​parked his ego and played the long game. By contrast, a week ago, when Ulster was leading 13-11, Nathan Doak’s youthful exuberance got the better of him. A 55-meter penalty was attempted as the clock ticked to the final five minutes. It was disappointing. So did Ulster’s hopes in the end, as they never got any territory after that failed kick.

The whole point of this is that there is a fine line between trust and too much trust. Doak is clearly the future and could become the rugby equivalent of what NFL teams call their franchise quarterback. However, he still has a lot to learn. Sunday at Franklin’s Gardens will feel like a Masters degree.


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