Thursday 18 January 2018

Comment: Size and scale of Munster job will quickly become apparent to the new head coach van Graan

Van Graan Photo: Getty
Van Graan Photo: Getty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Johann van Graan knows what pressure looks like. He sat alongside Heyneke Meyer when South Africa were enduring the harrowing final moments against Japan at the 2015 World Cup and lived through the furious reaction and fallout.

A year later, he went through the same thing with Allister Coetzee when Italy beat the Springboks for the first time. This year, it was a 57-0 hammering to New Zealand that brought about a national outcry.

Knowing what it looks like and being able to handle it are very different things. Bad results are greeted with long and tortuous inquests in South Africa and, given what we know about the man who will take over at Munster next month, he'll have been watching and learning as his bosses handled the backlash.

From December, the 36-year-old will take responsibility for the successes and failures of an organisation steeped in history and with a loyal and passionate fan-base. It's not the Springboks, but no provincial team in Ireland attracts scrutiny like the Thomond Park side.

Presuming his work permit is granted with a minimum of fuss, Van Graan will arrive in Limerick during the November internationals, allowing him to get his feet under his new desk during a relatively quiet time in the season.

Between now and then, he will be preparing for the upheaval of moving half-way across the world while also boning up on his knowledge of the squad, the league and the province he is about to take charge of.

Although Rassie Erasmus will remain to help bed him in, the handover will eventually end and when the vastly experienced former Springbok and his highly regarded assistant Jacques Nienaber head for Shannon Airport they will leave behind a young coaching ticket of three - Van Graan, Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery.

Former Ireland U-20 head coach Peter Malone may be pressed into service, while Paul O'Connell is another option but there is a distinct lack of experience to the ticket.

As the head man, Van Graan will live and die by his team's performances and results. The Munster job is his first appointment as head coach having started out as a video analyst with the Blue Bulls. His attention to detail, work-ethic and strong relationship with players saw him elevated to the role of forwards coach with the Boks and a top job is a natural next step.

Although he will inherit Erasmus's responsibilities, he will not inherit his title of director of rugby. Munster say they are "restructuring their coaching ticket" and Van Graan will be the 'head coach'.

The position of director of rugby was created after the late Anthony Foley had struggled with the workload of a head coach in the old model. Foley admitted the dual responsibility of preparing the team on a week-to-week basis and the long-term management of contracts and recruitment took its toll.

The province decided to spread the load and appoint an experienced head honcho who would have responsibility for the bigger picture and would let the coaches coach. Foley's untimely death forced Erasmus to roll up his sleeves and get more involved on the pitch.

He did a fine job, but even with his vast experience of both sides of the role, he conceded last year that he was struggling to find the time to look after the long-term side of the job.

Perhaps, in time, the coaching restructure will be followed through with the appointment of a management figure like Guy Easterby in Leinster and Bryn Cunningham in Ulster who recruit and retain in conjunction with their head coaches. Even with Easterby working alongside Leo Cullen, Leinster felt the need to recruit Stuart Lancaster as a 'senior coach' last season.

Those options remain open to Munster in the medium term, but for now they'll press on with Flannery becoming forwards coach and Jones in charge of the attack and the backline. Van Graan, we assume, will be responsible for defence.

Hailing his new man as "a recognised rugby intellectual with a proven track record and extensive experience working with a national side," Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald was keen to highlight Van Graan's analysis, technical knowledge and interpersonal skills in yesterday's announcement.

When it comes to preparing the team and managing the egos in the squad, those facets will be key but it is on the other side of the house where the new man will be tested.

Last Sunday, Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman gave an illuminating interview to 'Off the Ball' about life as a coach and the way his own approach has changed since he moved from the role of unit coach to the top job with Grenoble.

"I'm becoming way less technical," he explained to Joe Molloy. "What I need to do now is to hire people who are very focused on the minutiae, day to day. For me, it's about creating a better organisation and programme.

"It's changed, when I went to France first I was breakdown coach/collision coach and I could just crack on with making players better in those little areas, whereas now my overall responsibility is our game-plan, how we want to play each week. Then, it's the bigger picture: 'What does our depth-chart look like? What is our squad going to look like next year?'

"We're going to go from 44 players to 40, that's going to free up some budget but we also need to make sure the players will be more robust. You're managing strength and conditioning, medical, dealing with agents, all that stuff. It's really enjoyable."

Throw in the added layer of the horse-trading with the IRFU over selection and signings as well as the national media focus that comes with the Munster job, something the experienced Erasmus has handled with ease through a challenging year, and there is much for the new man to get his head around.

The transition period before Erasmus departs will be key. Tadhg Beirne is already on the way and it would be no surprise to hear that Munster will try and wrap up their major contract business early to alleviate pressure on Van Graan.

If he didn't think he could handle it, he wouldn't have applied for the job and he will have plenty of good-will behind him. Munster's fans and players are impatient for success and the word transition will be banned. Fair or not, he'll be expected to hit the ground running.

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