Van Graan proud as bat­tling Mun­ster hold Ex­eter

Glouces­ter coach is hop­ing to cre­ate more happy mem­o­ries with an­other Thomond scalp

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

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’

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