LIMERICK – Munster's bid to reach a first European final in 10 years when they play France's Racing 92 on Sunday has been boosted by a recent South Africa sojourn, said coach Johann van Graan.
The Irish province - who won the last of their two European Cups in 2008 - may lack the star names Racing possess but team spirit is one of their great strengths.
These bonds, Van Graan told the Irish Times newspaper, were forged even deeper during their stay in South Africa for two Pro14 matches, where they also fine-tuned preparations for Sunday's clash in Bordeaux.
“We used this last two weeks as a total positive,” said Van Graan. “Firstly, building relationships. Teams don't get to tour that much. We went to some fantastic places in South Africa and the South African people were really good to the team. In the background, we started working on Racing. The fact that we could take close to our strongest team across to South Africa worked in our favour, so that we are all on the same page.”
Van Graan, who forged his coaching reputation as part of the backroom staff that guided the Bulls to three Super 14 crowns, said Racing presented a massive challenge.
“They've got world-class players all across the board. I think the off-loading game of some of the Racing forwards is very, very good. I said it the previous time, their line-out contesting is second to the All Blacks, I believe. They really put you under pressure.”
Van Graan says Munster's extraordinary, indefatigable spirit can overcome even the most star-studded of teams.
This was exemplified in the manner they sneaked into the semi-finals at the expense of Toulon with a stunning converted solo try by Andrew Conway in the final minutes.
“It's firstly in your DNA,” said the 38-year-old, who was part of the South African coaching staff that guided the Springboks to the 2015 World Cup semi-finals. “It's in the way that you operate from day to day.”
“I said to the guys way back in November (when he took over from compatriot Rassie Erasmus) 'you don't become a champion when you get a trophy, you become a champion every single day of your life'. So, to us, it's all about habits.”
Van Graan says his message to the players -- who lost to eventual winners Saracens in last year's semi-finals -- is to shunt aside nerves and just enjoy the experience.
“The main thing I've learnt from semi-finals is that you have got to embrace the expectation. You've got to enjoy it.”
“If you don't get through it, if you fall short there's no second-place. It's all or nothing, but again that's why you want to be part of this.”