Sunday 25 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Extending 'dreamer' Van Graan's stay sets Munster up for more success'

Munster Head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster Head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Johann van Graan is the fifth Munster coach to take charge of the province since Declan Kidney left to become Ireland coach and, if he serves out the duration of his new contract, the South African will also be the longest serving supremo they've had in recent times.

He has already coached 47 Munster matches, more than Rassie Erasmus and closing in on Anthony Foley (64) and Rob Penney (61).

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He has a bit to go before he catches Tony McGahan who stayed for four seasons, oversaw 115 matches and won the province's last trophy, but the mutual decision to extend his stay offers the province the kind of continuity they haven't had since the Australian left in 2012.

Each coach brings with him a fresh set of ideas. Players are forced to adapt to a new way of playing and find out where they stand with the new man.

Van Graan was relatively unknown when he arrived in Ireland. Such was his low profile, he didn't have a Wikipedia page before his appointment was announced.

He arrived with a reputation for being a technically minded, innovative coach who was able to connect with players to the extent whereby a host of Springboks asked him to be a groomsman at their weddings.

The questions over his appointment centred on his lack of experience as a head coach in a job with a lot of scrutiny and a big remit but he arrived with the endorsement of Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora who rated him highly.

From the start, he's taken a respectful approach to his dealings with the press, maintaining a distance and delivering a clearly thought-out message after shaking hands with everyone in the room.

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His quirky collection of phrases can be slightly repetitive but his primary audience are his players.

His distant public persona masks the human touch he brings to his coaching that has seen him stem the drip-drip of big name, home-grown players leaving the province for pastures new.

Since Simon Zebo followed Donnacha Ryan to Racing 92, all of Munster's big names have extended their stays and in doing so endorsed the set-up.

Van Graan has recruited well and has built a strong bond with Joey Carbery, while he has gotten a tune out of big game players who appear to enjoy his approach.

Behind the scenes his level of analysis and attention to detail draw high praise as does his connection with the squad. "That's the atmosphere here. Johann is a real believer in that, he has a really open-minded thought process," Dave Kilcoyne recently said when talking about his own desire to work in a job where he helps people get better when he retires.

"If you didn't know him you might think he's nearly a dreamer, but he has that thing that reminds me of my mother that (he believes) anything is possible."

Last year he took over a squad in mid-season and kept the ship sailing in the direction of two semi-finals.

The first saw them fail to perform until it was too late against Racing 92, the second saw them put it up to Leinster but come up short at the RDS.

This season he's had a chance to put his own stamp on things and he has maintained the standard of reaching the last four in Europe. That is no mean feat and, while no one will be satisfied if they crash out against Saracens in 11 days' time, one expects the coach has achieved his key performance indicator for the season.

Not that Munster are content with semi-finals. Their strategic plan targets becoming the best club in the world, while they are aiming to bring home at least one Champions Cup and one PRO14 title before 2023.

Sticking with one coach across that period looks like the smart play.

Van Graan's biggest challenge is to add an extra layer of creativity to Munster's attacking play to match their excellent set-piece, strong defence and kicking-game.

While a couple of the province's legendary former players are traversing the world gathering experience, even they would recognise the need for a clear, consistent vision across a number of seasons to give any coach a chance at success.

"Continuity in all sport is very important," Van Graan said yesterday.

"I think that something that Munster would like at this stage, continuity with their management, continuity with their coaching staff and continuity with their players...

"If you look at, let's call it the top teams in the rugby world, (they're) teams with a lot of continuity and we've still got a long way to get to the likes of Saracens in terms of continuity.

"It seems like the All Blacks are a great example of when coaches and players stick along for a long time. A lot of things stay the same and a lot of teams can evolve together."

It remains to be seen if Van Graan can end the wait for a trophy, but the continuity of extending his stay can only help set the province up for success.

Irish Independent

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