Friday 24 January 2020

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'The case for Johann van Graan - why more change is the last thing Munster need right now'

12 January 2020; Munster head coach Johann van Graan prior to the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 5 match between Racing 92 and Munster at Paris La Defence Arena, in Paris, France. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
12 January 2020; Munster head coach Johann van Graan prior to the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 5 match between Racing 92 and Munster at Paris La Defence Arena, in Paris, France. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Johann van Graan is a man under pressure. For all that there are valid mitigating factors behind this season’s poor European Champions Cup results, he knows Munster well enough to be aware of the expectation that comes with the territory.

Although they have not been to a final since they won the Champions Cup in 2008, the men in red have remained a consistent presence in the latter stages of the tournament; reaching the semi-finals on seven occasions in the 11 subsequent seasons.

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Barring an unlikely sequence of results this weekend, they will not be present and correct in April this year.

And so, the introspection begins.

Munster are operating under the guidance of a new chief executive this season, with former Leicester City executive Ian Flanagan taking over in October.

He has yet to speak to the media, so there is no sense as yet as to what direction the province will take under his watch.

Van Graan will hope he hasn’t brought the trigger-happy Premier League approach to managers with him. Leicester, after all, sacked Claudio Ranieri months after the most remarkable title of them all.

Rugby is not quite at the ruthless level that football is, but Matt O’Connor, Kieran Keane, Mark Anscombe and Les Kiss present cautionary tales.

The South African will be aware of the growing disquiet around his tenure that has bubbled to the surface in the past two weeks, with reports of player unrest and poor relationships making their way from the rumour mill to the written word.

A run of two wins in eight tough games is the kind of thing that loosens lips.

Van Graan is in his second full season as coach, having taken over from Rassie Erasmus when his compatriot headed home.

They may be from the same neck of the woods, but they are very different characters.

Perhaps, unlike the ruthless Erasmus, he is guilty of being too nice. As a first-time head coach, he is learning on the job and there is something to be said for him developing a meaner streak.

And yet, for all that he is under pressure as the face of the organisation, Van Graan is dealing with a hand that is the legacy of a decade of rash decisions, of chopping and changing that saw Munster squander their place as one of the leading clubs in the game.

The last thing they need right now is further change.

Van Graan has negotiated choppy waters.

He took over mid-season, walked into a couple of media storms not of his making at the start with reports of player exits and the furore around Erasmus’s decision to sign Gerbrandt Grobler, but he got through those and managed to retain all of his top players and reach the Champions Cup and PRO14 semi-finals.

He helped to convince Joey Carbery to move down the M7, but the season ended in similar circumstances.

He signed a two-year contract extension - arranged by acting chief executive Philip Quinn, who is back in his financial role now - in April and subsequently spoke about adding a senior voice to his coaching ticket. Instead, he ended up losing Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery and had to rejig the whole thing.

Already facing a tricky pre-season with 12 internationals called up to Ireland’s World Cup squad, he recruited impressively with Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree, but didn’t have the time with his players to bed in their new ideas.

The PRO14 semi-final exit led to a horror European draw and, although Saracens' troubles gave them an opening, qualification always looked like a long shot.

Carbery’s injury issues have been a major issue, while Tadhg Beirne may be gone for the season and a host of squad members have been missing.

However, Van Graan has signed Springboks Damian de Allende and RG Snyman for next season and, while their arrivals have not yet been confirmed, they’ll give the province a major injection of beef.

There may be scope to coax another player or two from Leinster to help put together a 23-man squad capable of competing with the biggest hitters, with Saracens' Irish-qualified full-back Matt Gallagher another linked with a move.

On Saturday, the three back replacements were left on the bench until the match was beyond Munster. Two of them, Craig Casey and Shane Daly, were making their European debuts for the province.

They are two of Van Graan’s most promising young players and he must use the Six Nations period to make sure they, Ben Healy, Keynan Knox, Jack O’Sullivan, Fineen Wycherley, Gavin Coombes and others are capable of mixing it with Leinster et al at the business end of the PRO14.

Put simply, Munster’s bench contributed nothing at La Defense Arena while Racing’s came on and affected the game.

The earliest introduction came on 65 minutes, with South Africans Chris Cloete and Arno Botha introduced with less than 10 minutes to go. That spoke volumes for the coach’s view of his depth.

Starting with Sunday’s clash with Ospreys, Van Graan has a winnable series of games between now and his side’s meeting with Leinster on April 18.

With the internationals away and the media focus on the Six Nations, he has a chance to build momentum with a view to topping Conference B and avoiding another RDS semi-final.

Their performance on Sunday would be enough to beat most teams, but they aspire to beat the best.

Right now, they appear to be some way off that level but next year they will be better set.

Their mission between now and then is to keep the faith. After a decade of turmoil, it’s time for continuity.

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