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Brendan Fanning: 'Van Graan must loosen up and give a talented backline licence to play closer to home'



Van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile

Van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile


Van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile

The headline on the highlights package from Round 11 of the Premiership last weekend read 'Surprise result at Kingsholm'. It was a strange day in England's south-west. At the post-match press conference Sale's coach Steve Diamond, who can most charitably be described as volatile, invited a journalist 'outside' to sort out a difference of opinion. Honestly.

You'd think Diamond would have been too busy celebrating the win to lower himself to that level, for it had been a massive result for his side: their first win on the road since March. Trailing to a lovely try by Jaco Visagie, they fought back to get on the right side of a 30-15 scoreline. If you were a Munster fan gearing up for next Friday's European encounter you would have celebrated as much as the small band of Sharks supporters who had made the long trek down from Lancashire.


Munster’s John Kelly is congratulated by Ronan O’Gara (l) and Donnacha O’Callaghan after scoring his side’s fourth try in the last minute of the game against Gloucester in 2003 Photo: Brendan Moran

Munster’s John Kelly is congratulated by Ronan O’Gara (l) and Donnacha O’Callaghan after scoring his side’s fourth try in the last minute of the game against Gloucester in 2003 Photo: Brendan Moran

For Gloucester it was close to embarrassing. Not that they had played that badly, but it was a full house who had come along to see them nail down their candidacy as contenders in the Premiership. A win wouldn't have transformed their position as the third-placed team - still they would have been 9/10 points off second-placed Saracens - but it was supposed to be the next chapter in the story of a team who were chipping off the flaky bits, and priming themselves for something special. Getting hosed by the Tigers in Welford Road yesterday hasn't added any gloss.

The man who has been applying this more durable coat is coach Johan Ackermann. He looks and sounds like your classic Saffer: a giant Afrikaner with an accent thick enough to coat the walls. But he has earned a reputation as a coach who manages players well, and encourages them to play the kind of rugby you'd happily pay to watch.

South African sides have not exactly lit up Super Rugby's roll of honour. In 23 years of competition only the Bulls - with three titles in four seasons from 2007 to 2010 - have brought it home. Aside from that, nothing. So for the Lions to feature in back-to-back finals in 2016 and 2017 was a significant turn of events. Ackermann was at the wheel. And unlike the Bulls, who had bludgeoned teams to dust, the Lions played great rugby. He has brought the same to Gloucester.

As a second row who hadn't been slow to throw his weight around - to that end he had turned to the steroid nandrolone which gained him some grunt but cost him two years of his career - this was a whole new approach. Ackermann's epiphany came on a flight home from New Zealand after another Super Rugby setback. His assistant Swys de Bruin set about convincing him that there had to be a better way.

"A few things happened in our five years together at the Lions," De Bruin recalls. "We didn't have big names or really big, heavy guys so we opted for a brand of attacking rugby. We wanted to score tries and inspire people. We were on that flight in 2014 after playing the Chiefs and I went down the back of the plane and sat beside Johan. And we spoke about a more attacking style of play. I always admired his preparedness to change, how open he was to something different."

Gloucester have a tradition of being hard-asses and direct but Ackermann convinced them that this way is the right way. It's been a battle for defence coach Jonny Bell to keep his side of the stats sheet up to scratch given the team want to play so much rugby.

"You're trying to get everybody from all these different backgrounds on the same page, and that takes time," he told us before the first leg. "I think we're getting a bit of a balance this year and a better understanding of the way he (Ackermann) wants to do things. He's an outstanding individual and the boys love working with him."

When it works, it's hard to defend, and tremendous to watch. And it works best when Danny Cipriani is running the show. Fortunately for Munster not only will second row Tom Savage be out of the picture on Friday, having been banned for two weeks after the Sale game, but Owen Williams will be filling the 10 shirt. Williams and Cipriani really don't compare. When the sides met in Limerick in October, Cipriani started but did not finish. A lazy tackle on Rory Scannell saw shoulder connect with head and referee Alexandre Ruiz showed red to the out-half. That was that.

What unfolded thereafter was a brave and competent performance from the away side in trying to cope with 14 men and no first-choice playmaker. Afterwards Ackermann kept us amused by opening his press conference by saying he'd spoken before about the way the tackle was being refereed and wouldn't be going there again. And promptly went there. As he left the room we checked the calendar to see the date of the rematch. If Gloucester could look that good in those circumstances, what would they be like at home?

The history between these clubs is special. The Miracle Match in 2003 clearly is the battle most often revisited because it couldn't have been made up. Its best bit was that the Munster players hadn't a clue on the minute detail that was required to pull off the greatest heist in the history of European rugby. That said, if you had told Ronan O'Gara, just before his clinching conversion of John Kelly's try, that 27 points - on top of the four tries scored - was the required margin it would have only added to the appeal for him. And he would have got the kick even closer to the black spot.

Equally, Gloucester's out-half Ludovic Mercier would have lived some moments differently that day, given the chance. With 10 minutes left he ran a penalty that could have been tapped over to douse Munster's fire. He copped on to the maths only when his missus rang him later to query his thinking.

The backdrop only added to the occasion. We remember the first leg in Kingsholm three months previously, when Alan Gaffney was not long in the job, and Gloucester had murdered Munster with their wide game. Gaffney looked numb and was being counselled by a couple of long-time Munster people along the lines that things would get better.

We are far enough removed from that scene for there to be a whole new cast of characters. Gloucester folk are still haunted by it, though. Their history in Europe is one where their only comfort has come from the Challenge Cup. Munster see participation in that competition as a sign of failure.

So Gloucester have a mental battle on their hands. They looked first class in going to Exeter in round three and winning deservedly, 27-19. A week later Exeter came to Kingsholm and won on almost the same scoreline. Same old Gloucester. Then Sale, nobody's tip for the top, leave the Shed speechless with that Premiership win.

If you were Johann van Graan then you'd have been well pleased when that plot was laid out on the table. But the South African seems caught between innate conservatism and turning a stellar teamsheet into a stellar performance.

There is a huge disconnect between the quality of players now assembled in red and the way they are playing. Specifically the way they are attacking. The return of Chris Farrell this weekend was great news for a player whose international career looked to be taking off, only to be interrupted, and Munster have missed him hugely. But the issue goes deeper than Farrell's fitness.

In the third quarter in Limerick last weekend, Leinster - that would be 14-man Leinster who were chasing the game - started to get a run on the home side. You could sense the unease spreading around the stands. We suggested to a colleague that Thomond Park could be sold for development if the chase was successful, for there would be no explaining that one.

Van Graan's dilemma seems to be how best to use a backline with Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Rory Scannell, Farrell, Darren Sweetnam, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls. You can lob in a handful of other names, from very promising developers like Dan Goggin to established achievers like Tyler Bleyendaal. Whatever. If your policy is to get out of your own half before taking the blinkers off it's not that big a deal who fills the shirts 9-15.

Even aside from idealogical issues some stuff is hard to understand. In the fifth minute last weekend Munster threw to a five-man lineout in a decent attacking position. With Chris Cloete at scrum-half and CJ Stander at centre they faked to maul and had Cloete breaking off the back straight away. A few options presented themselves, the dream one being to put the hard-running Scannell over the gain line where he would connect with Murray, who had run through the middle of the lineout hoping to support on Scannell's inside.

Instead they opted to go out the back of Scannell to Carbery, who had Earls steaming up on his inside. The problem with having started all of this with a shortened lineout, however, was that Carbery and Earls inevitably would be running into traffic. Sure enough they crashed. You'd love to see Munster running starter plays into space rather than into clutter.

Last season in Bordeaux they had a wealth of decent ball off scrum and lineout and used it to create very little because the policy was first to get out of their own half, via the boot, and then to win the physical collision. Racing loved that one.

So far there is no sign of Munster shifting to a higher gear within sight of their own sticks. Friday night then will essentially present us with a proxy war fought on UK territory between the old-school South African approach and the new one.

"Yes, it will be an interesting match because of those two different styles of rugby," De Bruin says. "JP Ferreira (Munster's defence coach) was with me for five years and he's very good. And Van Graan is an experienced coach, so Munster will be hard to play against. But I'm on the attacking side. I'd rather run and pass than see if we can kick."

The buzz around the town on Friday will be a throwback to the early days of this competition when it had got over its teething problems and begun to establish itself as a glittering star in rugby's firmament. The Kingsholm Road will be closed to traffic well before the game, and both Mike Teague's bar and The Jockey will be rammers. The game has long since sold out. And we're not sure what would comprise the 'surprise result'.

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