Van Graan defiant as Mun­ster fall short again

Coach says side ran out of time to undo dam­age of Rac­ing’s blis­ter­ing start Le­in­ster will face the Paris side in the Bil­bao fi­nal on May 12th

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Gerry Thorn­ley at the Stade Cha­ban-Del­mas

For the sixth time in the decade since they last reached a Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup fi­nal, and won, Mun­ster have come up one game short af­ter yes­ter­day’s anti-cli­mac­tic 27-22 de­feat to Rac­ing 92 in the Stade Cha­ban Del­mas. And so in­stead of an all-Ir­ish fi­nal, Le­in­ster will face the Parisians in Bil­bao on May 12th.

It’s still a fine achieve­ment to again reach the semi-fi­nals of this com­pe­ti­tion. Yet for all the world this again felt like Mun­ster had come up against a glass ceil­ing, al­beit they were au­thors of much of their own mis­for­tune in a cu­ri­ous game, es­pe­cially in Rac­ing’s de­struc­tive open­ing quar­ter with three tries be­fore Mun­ster scored three in the last quar­ter.

Jo­hann van Graan main­tained they would be back. “I thought we came through some mas­sive bat­tles over the last six or seven months in this com­pe­ti­tion. Like I said, the clock caught us in the end and maybe a bet­ter start and maybe us­ing one or two op­por­tu­ni­ties we would have won this game. If we had lost this game and hadn’t cre­ated any op­por­tu­ni­ties I’d be a wor­ried man, but I’m very proud of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that we did cre­ate. We’ll be back next year.”

Mun­ster’s de­fence was fil­leted in the open­ing 23 min­utes, by which stage Rac­ing had run in three tries and led 24-3. Look­ing rat­tled, they missed 16 tack­les, made er­rors with the ball be­fore ul­ti­mately trans­lat­ing al­most 70 per cent of pos­ses­sion and 77 per cent of ter­ri­tory into those late tries. Un­til then, they had es­chewed kicks at goal as they sought to make up such a big deficit, but their li­ne­out badly mal­func­tioned. Given van Graan had high­lighted Rac­ing’s de­fen­sive li­ne­out as sec­ond only to the All Blacks, his de­ci­sion to pro­mote Niall Scan­nell ahead of Rhys Mar­shall will be de­bated, as will the de­ci­sion to leave the record try scorer, Si­mon Zebo, on the bench.

Sub­sti­tu­tions

Both were part of a quadru­ple sub­sti­tu­tion two min­utes into the sec­ond half, and each scored, with Zebo also cre­at­ing An­drew Con­way’s try with the game’s last play. Zebo thus equalled An­thony Fo­ley’s Mun­ster record of 23 tries in the com­pe­ti­tion, but van Graan main­tained he had no re­grets.

“Not at all,” he said. “I thought the seven re­place­ments all made a huge im­pact. We al­ways knew this game was go­ing to go right to the end. We did not plan to be in a po­si­tion where we were 24-3down. That was not part of the plan. The im­pacts did a bril­liant job. The clock caught us at the end. Two or three min­utes more, maybe we had an op­por­tu­nity. But there are no ex­cuses on my side. We weren’t good enough on the day and to let a team score three tries in the first 20 min­utes of a Euro­pean Cup semi-fi­nal, you are go­ing to strug­gle to win it.”

Mun­ster’s de­feat was rem­i­nis­cent of Le­in­ster’s to Cler­mont last sea­son in Lyon at the same stage. Mun­ster looked weary in the open­ing half-hour yet their strong fin­ish to both halves rather gives the lie to the no­tion 10 flights in the last three weeks had taken some­thing from their legs, some­thing which van Graan, Peter O’Ma­hony and CJ Stander main­tained was not the case.

A huge Red Army con­tin­gent ap­peared to ac­count for roughly half the 24,574 sup­port­ers, with Rac­ing’s sur­pris­ingly nu­mer­ous con­tin­gent seem­ingly swelled by Bordeaux fans adopt­ing their French ri­vals for the day. But the Mun­ster hordes were left de­flated by the man­ner of their team’s start, even if they mir­rored their team’s re­silience right un­til the fi­nal whis­tle. The fi­nal is a guar­an­teed sell-out, with just 3,200 tick­ets kept back for each of the fi­nal­ists. Over 22,000 of the 46,000 al­ready sold have been bought in Spain, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a fair few neu­trals be­ing in the sta­dium come kick-off.

Le­in­ster

Af­ter tak­ing on Con­nacht in Gal­way next Satur­day, Le­in­ster should earn them­selves a rest week­end in the Pro14 play-offs be­fore the Euro­pean fi­nal, but coach Leo Cullen stressed: “We need to get a point [against Con­nacht] for def­i­nite to make sure we are top of our con­fer­ence so we will see who play from the other con­fer­ence, the two/three play-off win­ners.”

“So we need to get a point to make sure there is a week­end off there so we will be go­ing full out for the game in Bil­bao and then we will see who is left stand­ing and then we can make some calls for what we hope is a [Pro14] semi-fi­nal the week af­ter­wards. For the time be­ing we will just make sure we take care of the guys and try and get the best 15 avail­able.”

In con­trast, Rac­ing must face Bordeaux away and Agen at home in the in­ter­ven­ing two Satur­days. Their co-coach Lau­rent Labit said: “Of course we’re proud, we’re very proud. When you’re a coach you look at the match and af­ter 40 min­utes it was like a piece of cake that we had pre­pared. What we needed was to keep the ball and we scored three tries, all three in sit­u­a­tions we had planned and iden­ti­fied. It was a great 40 min­utes at that level. We want to win a ti­tle and we saw Le­in­ster yes­ter­day, so we will have to do the same for 80 min­utes against Le­in­ster, be­cause 40 won’t be enough.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SPORTS­FILE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Conor Mur­ray shows his de­jec­tion af­ter Mun­ster’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal de­feat to Rac­ing 92 in Bordeaux.

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