Johann van Graan is just over a year in charge of Munster, and all the pieces are beginning to come together for him.
AS MUCH AS Johann van Graan will continue to claim these are weeks like any other, there is something special afoot.
More than just the unique atmosphere promised by Thomond Park on a European matchday, Sunday seems set to be the day the head coach finally gets to field his first-choice playmakers.
Between Conor Murray’s early-season neck injury and Joey Carbery’s international commitments, Munster have not been able to pair their uber-classy creators this season. A home clash against the French champions is a fitting stage to debut the double act.
“Obviously they have trained a bit together, played for Ireland together and it is not something we have spent too much thought about,” said Van Graan when asked how much preparation time could have been invested in the partnership.
“If Joey and Conor get selected it will be like any normal week, get the job done in training and then get the job done on the field.”
Since Carbery was introduced to Test rugby in Chicago two years ago, he and Murray have become well acquainted with one another. Yet their time on the field as a 9-10 combination has been rare. They have shared significant (i.e. more than five minutes) competitive gametime on just four occasions, most recently when Carbery started the first Test of the series against Australia. An earlier meeting with Australia in Dublin counts for another 49 minutes of playing time, when of course Carbery was playing as fullback.
More often, they have spent fleeting late-match minutes as a pair or passed one another on the sideline as one shed a jacket and the other pulled one on.
Seeing them together, in red, is a mouthwatering prospect.
Selection appears straightforward, toss Carbery and CJ Stander in among the group who tore through Edinburgh, though Andrew Conway, Mike Haley and Stephen Archer are injury concerns for Van Graan as he mulls his team-sheet for Sunday.
Having recently celebrated his anniversary in charge of Munster, round three of Europe is another landmark for Van Graan. Last year’s back-to-back victories over Leicester Tigers were his first foray into European rugby, yet a year on Munster look in formidable shape as they welcome back Carbery and Murray as well as Chris Farrell and Tyler Bleyendaal. All of a sudden, Van Graan has a core of front-line talents who are almost alll fit and available, a fleet of new contracts and they are playing for a settled coaching ticket.
Things are on the up in the southern province.
“I would like to say a lot better prepared than a year ago,” says the South African.
“Obviously, it went pretty well the first two games against Leicester. At least a year in you have kinda had everything now for a second time, last year was the first time, now it’s the second time that we are going into this block.”
“Like I said from day one, it is never been about me, it has been about the team. We believe in our team. For me personally I have enjoyed every single moment of it, I do every day.
“It is never work where I drive here in the morning. It is all about coming to enjoy the day, enjoy what we are about and where we, hopefully, are going.
“It is no different than a year ago. The most important thing is what we do and players are happy and the management keep growing and we are taking each day a step of growth and becoming a better team.
“I think we have done it over the past few weeks.”
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