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'As someone from the southern hemisphere, it is a phenomenal achievement just to get out of your group'

By Liam Heagney
CJ Stander reflects following Munster's semi-final loss last April (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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Johann van Graan has called on Munster’s critics to show some respect and acknowledge just how difficult it is to negotiate qualification from a Champion Cup pool.


The Irish province have recently restored their proud reputation as a serial quarter-final qualifier, reaching the knockout stages in the last three seasons. 

However, rather than this consistency be celebrated as a decent achievement in this more competitive era of the 20-team Champions Cup compared to the old 24-team ERC European Cup, they have been ridiculed for falling at the semi-final hurdle in the last three seasons, twice with van Graan at the helm. 

With a new season set to start, rather than just dwell on their poor semi-final record, the South African has placed the spotlight on how challenging it is in the first place to even escape a European pool. 

Eighteen clubs have qualified for the quarter-finals in the five seasons of Champions Cup under EPCR, but Munster rank high on that list as 11 of the clubs have only reached the knockout stages on either just one or two occasions, an inferior strike rate to Munster.

(Continue reading below…)

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The Irish province’s record of three last-eight appearances in the last five seasons is shared by Clermont and Wasps, and only bettered by Leinster, Racing and Toulon, who have each reached four quarter-finals, and current champions Saracens, who have made the knockout stages in all five recent tournaments. 

With Munster now up against Racing and Saracens in their latest pool, the scale of the task involved in even getting back into the knockout stages is as steep as ever, never mind the holy grail of actually lifting the trophy for the first time since 2008.

We’re in this competition to win so obviously there has been huge disappointment from our side,” said South African van Graan about the semi-final defeats on his watch, the 2018 loss to Racing in Bordeaux and last April’s loss to Saracens in Coventry. 


“All I can say as someone from the southern hemisphere coming into the northern hemisphere is I think it is a phenomenal achievement just to get out of your group. 

“Rob (Baxter) and I just had a chat, it’s the first time we meet up after that (January) game in Thomond Park which was 9-7. Had we lost that game we would not have got out of our group.

“The Chiefs are a team I respect so much. That draw in Sandy Park, 10-all, it is one of my favourite moments yet in the northern hemisphere because it is so difficult to play in that wind and we chose to take that wind head-on in the first 40. 

“I remember that last kick off, Joey (Carbery) going literally 80 metres and we defended 21 phases, so I don’t think people appreciate how difficult it is to get out of your group. 

“I just looked at the groups again – they say our pool is the group of death but I think every pool is a pool of death. Twenty fantastic teams, that is why it is the Champions Cup. If you win this one you are good.”

Munster open their latest campaign at Ospreys on Saturday and they have recalled Keith Earls and Conor Murray for their first provincial starts since World Cup duty with Ireland. 

Andrew Conway, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, skipper Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander are other Munster players from that Japanese adventure starting in Swansea. 


5 – Saracens (2015, 16, 17, 18, 19)

4 – Leinster (15, 17, 18, 19); Racing (15, 16, 18, 19); Toulon (15, 16, 17, 18)

3 – Clermont (17, 17, 18); Wasps (15, 16, 17); Munster (17, 18, 19)

2 – Northampton (15, 16); Glasgow (17, 19); Toulouse (17, 19)

1 – Bath (15); Exeter (16); Leicester (16); Stade Francais (16); Scarlets (18); La Rochelle (18); Edinburgh (19); Ulster (19) 

WATCH: Former Saracens player Jim Hamilton discusses the salary cap scandal surrounding his old club

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