'If ever there is a day that sums up Munster rugby it's today'
Saturday night won’t be the last time Johann van Graan will sit in the hot seat in the Aviva Stadium media conference room reflecting on a Munster rugby match. The Bath-bound South African is due there again in a fortnight for a URC derby with Leinster, but the May 21 emotions will be incomparable to how he felt in the aftermath of a monstrous day that was typical Munster.
They played rugby from the heart and from the head amid an incredible cauldron of noise and the only bum note was how it had all ended in heartbreak like so many of these memorable European escapades previously featuring the Irish province.
Of course, they have been twice champions of Europe in the past but they keep on providing new and painfully dramatic ways of losing. To go out following a penalty shootout after a rip-roaring cup classic played in front of a partisan crowd of upwards of 40,000 raucous Munster supporters was a script that had never before been written and it left the departing head coach emotionally all shook up in the aftermath and tearful on the pitch post-game.
This van Graan emotion continued right through to his post-match briefing which got going at around the same time Leinster were putting Leicester to the sword in England and securing for themselves a semi-final fixture next weekend that cruelly won’t feature Munster all because of three missed penalty shootout kicks, two from Ben Healy and another from Conor Murray.
It was November 2017 when the former Springboks assistant coach first pitched up in Limerick to take charge following Rassie Erasmus’ return to South Africa and here he was more than four and a half years later trying to put into words the most agonising of agonising defeats.
The was a deep exhale and a moment’s hesitation before van Graan eventually began to sum it up, so many good Munster things happening across the 100 minutes of quarter-final action before it was all ultimately scuppered by the brutal happenings off the kicking tee from various locations on the 22 and ten-metre lines. “Firstly, incredibly proud,” he said, regaining his composure.
“Today was what Munster rugby is about. To lose it like that, that is unfortunately sport, that is the way the rules are. Somebody has got to kick it over and somebody has got to miss. If ever there is a day that sums up Munster rugby it’s today, a community, 40,000 people travelling. It was certainly one of the best rugby games I have been involved with.
“I said to my wife there, from a feeling point of view this was like the World Cup semi-final in 2015 that we lost 20-18 against the All Blacks, that feeling that you gave it all you have got, the players gave it all they have got.
“Management, staff and then the people of Munster, they gave it all they have got. And then you have got to know this is a game and everybody associated with Munster rugby will be incredibly proud of 23 guys that stood up and fought today.
“We left the hotel saying to the brave and faithful nothing is impossible and the way that our captain Peter O’Mahony played literally when his body couldn’t anymore and then Jack Daly came on to make his European debut in that cauldron – that is the incredible thing about rugby.
“It gives you opportunities to experience like what happened today and the tough thing is a great game of rugby, could have won it in the final play of the game, had or two opportunities but it is gone now and the sun will come up tomorrow morning.
“That is by far the most incredible scene that I have seen in terms of people giving it their all for this club. The last two weeks were so special, right up there.”
When van Grann spoke, not much time had elapsed since the last Munster missed kick brought the curtain down on a festival of rugby that had seen six tries equally shared in a 24-all classic that will live long in the memory. Had he managed to have a consoling word with Healy and Murray, the two players whose misses had eliminated Munster?
It almost never happens in rugby…
Munster and Toulouse locked at 24-24 after 80 minutes plus extra time, it all came down to a ????? ??????? ???????????!
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 7, 2022
“Look, I have spoken to them. Obviously gutted but as I said a few weeks ago we all win together and you lose together. All you can ask is guys to give it their all and that is what they did through the whole season to put us in a position to come against the European champions in a cauldron like this.
“Nobody on the pitch has ever been in a situation like that. We actually spoke during the week about the possibility of extra time, the tries and then the kicks. We were prepared for it. It comes down to literally a kick. What a way for the game to end from a Munster perspective. All credit to Toulouse.”
Had van Graan planned in advance for Healy, Murray and Joey Carbery to be taking the shootout kicks? “You couldn’t decide who was going to be taking it because you didn’t know who was going to be on the pitch. Conor came on for Simon (Zebo) with a few minutes to go. I think composure was one thing we were very good at today from a game management point of view.
“We got the kickers together, we went through who was going to take which one because the chances that Conor was going to be on the pitch at the back-end and Ben and Joey was very little and it happened. Our plan was structured, all three gentlemen were comfortable and the whole squad was behind them.”
That was the end of the live section of the van Graan media session, Munster allowing a few more questions under embargo before it then came to the parting of the ways with the South African doing the rounds in the media room, exchanging handshakes with the journalists who had hung on every word he had to say. So close, so far away. That’s rugby.
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