Van Graan proud as battling Munster hold Exeter
Gloucester coach is hoping to create more happy memories with another Thomond scalp
IRELAND’S four provinces remain unbeaten after the opening weekend of European action. In the Champions Cup, Munster eked out a titanic 10-10 draw in difficult conditions at Sandy Park, where Exeter Chiefs had only lost once in their last 17 games, while Ulster scored three tries in an impressive win over Leicester in Belfast.
And Connacht got their Challenge Cup campaign off to a solid start in the Sportsground with victory over Bordeaux-Begles.
Luke Cowan-Dickie scored Exeter’s only try with Gareth Steenson adding a penalty and a conversion. CJ Stander scored for Munster, with Joey Carbery kicking a penalty and a conversion.
Munster head coach Johann Van Graan was delighted to come away with two points. “Nobody gave us a chance so I’m incredibly proud of the performance,” he said. “We had chances to win it but so did they. They are a very difficult side to play against as they have a great ability to retain possession.”
Second-half tries from Alan O’Connor, Will Addison and Jacob Stockdale earned Ulster a 24-10 win over Geordan Murphy’s Tigers in the Pool 4 opener. John Cooney kicked all three conversions and a penalty. The Tigers had led at half-time thanks to a George Ford penalty but failed to score again until Manu Tuilagi’s 75th-minute converted try.
“It was a really, really tough game,” said Ulster and Ireland skipper Rory Best. “But we had to front up and that’s a win we’re really happy with. It was about having the confidence and courage, and you do feel pressure without getting points, but the way we went about our business in the second half, that told eventually.”
One of the big talking points of the day, however, came in Bath’s home defeat by Toulouse. With the home side trailing by two points, Freddie Burns missed a 74th-minute penalty from in front of the posts and then blew a try barely 60 seconds later after breaking clear and crossing the Toulouse line before losing control of the ball under pressure from Maxime Medard, who nudged Burns’ arm.
Burns even blew a kiss as he appeared to enjoy an unopposed run-in, but it all went horribly wrong as he failed to touch down and Bath were left with an uphill struggle to qualify from a group that also includes champions Leinster.
Bath captain Rhys Priestland has backed a tearful Burns to bounce back. “We have got far bigger issues than him (Burns) dropping the ball over the line or missing that kick,” Priestland said.
“We should have been good enough to not have to rely on one try or a kick here and there. It is probably something we need to speak about as a squad — celebrating before we score tries.”
ON a blustery day in April 2012 one of the great upsets of Irish rugby unfolded at Thomond Park. Having enjoyed 17 years of Heineken Cup dominance at home with only one blot on their copybook — losing to Leicester Tigers in 2007 — Munster suffered the unthinkable when Ulster put them on their rear ends.
It was whirlwind stuff. Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller were at the peak of their influence in Ravenhill. John Afoa, too, was at the top of his game, and the best tighthead in the competition that season. And Craig Gilroy was leaving men in red in his wake as the away side raced into a 19-point lead after only half an hour.
High in the stands as part of the Ulster coaching bench was Jonny Bell. A veteran of the bad old days, he had been a terrific athlete on an Ireland team where that kind of stuff was barely registering, never mind being measured. At least his career had coincided with Ulster’s greatest day, the Heineken Cup triumph in January 1999 when he was man of the match in the final against Colomiers. Being the defence coach on a historic day in Limerick wasn’t too shabby either.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “I don’t ever remember walking into Thomond Park thinking: ‘This is going to be a great day!’ But it was a good time for Ulster. Time had been spent getting the leadership right and putting things in place. We didn’t go down there just expecting to win, who would? But we focused on what we were trying to do, which was to give ourselves the best chance. That was the nature of it. Ulster were a good side that year and on the day I suppose the game went our way. We were at that level and able to compete with Munster.”
Next Saturday he will be back in Thomond Park for a lunchtime appointment, this time as defence coach with Gloucester. After seven years in Ulster on the non-playing side, first as elite player development officer and then defence coach, Bell answered the call three years ago from his mate David Humphreys to clear his desk and come over to Gloucester. If this was football there might be an online debate over whether or not the Cherry and Whites would be classed as ‘a big club’. Big disappointment mostly, for an outfit with rock-solid support through the years without getting much in return.
“It sounds a bit philosophical but we’re on a bit of a journey and we’re not there yet, but for the first time I feel we’re starting to put together a squad that has the potential to push forward and actually play with the big boys,” Bell says.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride I suppose,
with a huge turnover in playing personnel. And then with Laurie (Fisher) resigning and then Johan (Ackermann) coming in you try and build a squad around what Laurie wanted and the way he wanted to do things, and then it’s nearly night and day in comparison with the way Johan sees the game. So you’re basically going back to zero and starting again.”
It’s season two of the Ackermann reign, so his recruits are well up to speed. With another few of his compatriots on the horizon, between injury or Test duty, in Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert and Ruan Dreyer — all Boks, all Lions on his watch in Jo’ burg — there will be the standard Saffer feel to any club that goes to that part of the world for a new coach. Luckily for Munster they won’t be on duty in Limerick.
By the time all these pieces are fitted into the jigsaw, long before the rematch in Kingsholm, Gloucester will have a heavyweight pack. Mostert and Gerbrandt Grobler in the second row is enough for starters, with Danny Cipriani doing his thing at 10. Ackermann is not your bog standard run-over-the-top-ofpeople South African coach. Cipriani is a joy to watch, and Gloucester let him play.
“Johan’s outlook is, I suppose, 180 degrees from the way we had been playing the game prior to that,” Bell says. “He doesn’t hide the fact that he wants the players to entertain and to enjoy playing the game. And he sees the best way of doing that is by running and taking options and being positive with the ball. Within that there is a balance to be struck. You’re trying to get everybody from all these different backgrounds on the same page, and that takes time. I think we’re getting a bit of a balance this year and a better understanding of the way he wants to do things. He’s an outstanding individual and the boys love working with him.”
So is it all bearing fruit? Well, in season one Gloucester did what Gloucester do and came up short in the Premiership, finishing seventh. Currently they are fourth. Seventeen tries conceded is about five more than Bell would want from six games played, but the Ackermann way will open the door more often than any of them would want.
“As a defence coach you can either fight against that or be low risk. If you look at the Saracens model it’s very successful. Their game is built around defence, limiting their own mistakes, conserving energy and being ready to power up and frustrate other teams in the right zones. And on the back of that they’ve scored some fantastic tries. We are not that, so as a defence coach I’ve got to adapt or it’s not going to work. It’s tough, there’s no doubt about it, but hopefully the end goal is that we win games of rugby, are a better rugby team and are playing in better competitions.”
Bell had a while at the helm in Kingsholm, in the last few months of the 2016/17 season, filling the gap between Fisher’s departure and Ackermann’s arrival. It was an enjoyable spin, with Gloucester getting to the Challenge Cup final again (they won it soon after he arrived in 2015), beating La Rochelle away in the semi-final — a trick no one else had managed on that ground that season.
They were back in the final again last season, losing an epic encounter in Bilbao to Cardiff. So they have established a decent pedigree in knockout rugby over the last four seasons. Bell acknowledges that winning pool games in the second tier is altogether more straightforward than when you move up a level. You don’t end up being billeted with Castres (who visit Kingsholm this afternoon), Exeter and Munster in the Challenge Cup.
And while none of the current Gloucester crew had any skin in the games that were Munster against the Cherry and Whites in the early noughties, games that are part of the fabric of this competition, they get what it’s about. After yesterday’s result in Exeter, clearly Munster do too.
“I suppose you should be careful what you wish for: the Heineken Cup? Pressure is on in the Premiership and then you come up for air and you’re straight back down into it again in this competition. It’s fantastic to be a part of it but it’s unforgiving and relentless. And if you get it wrong you get it wrong big time. David (Humphreys) would agree that in recent years we didn’t have a squad strong enough to back it up. We’re still putting that group together but we’re delighted to be here and we’re going to give the best account of ourselves. We’ ll go over to Munster full of confidence but also full of respect for what is a top-class side.”
‘He doesn’t hide the fact that he wants the players to entertain’