Sunday 16 June 2019

Sinead Kissane: Van Graan's rising rhetoric adding to 'the Munster way'

The head coach has embedded himself into the southern province, much to the benefit of his squad

Johann van Graan has really immersed himself in Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Johann van Graan has really immersed himself in Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Johann van Graan made time to turn his house in Limerick into a home when his family moved over from South Africa last winter.

It was a busy time for him. After finishing with the Springboks following their November Test against France, van Graan flew straight from Paris to Cork and drove to Limerick to start life as the new Munster head coach.

The weekend after his family landed in Ireland, they travelled to a furniture retail store in Dublin. After buying what they needed, the van Graans went back to their car before wondering how they were going to fit everything in.

Van Graan has packed a lot in since taking over from Rassie Erasmus last November - just as well he's an early riser who can be in the office well before 6am.

His to-do list has included bedding in to life at Munster, getting a new defence coach as well as a new strength and conditioning coach, in his first week in charge he had to answer questions about the future of Peter O'Mahony before a new contract was agreed, he had to deal with the controversy over why the province signed a player who previously failed a doping test and he had to get to grips with an ever-increasing injury list which began to fill with names including Chris Cloete, Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Farrell and Keith Earls.

Along with guidance from Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, the way van Graan stitched through the transition from Erasmus to himself was by not making too many alterations.

"I believe you've got two ears and one mouth in life and for the first two months I'd like to listen as much as I can," van Graan said last November. "We will speed up one or two things but it will be about enhancing not changing over the next seven months."

Compared to Erasmus, van Graan has a far more hands-on roll with players at training.


"He's so different to Rassie in terms of his outlook and everything," Billy Holland said this week. "Johann is on the pitch every day, Rassie wasn't. So, you just become closer with him when you're on the pitch with him the whole time.

"I think Johann has added another dimension to our game. I suppose the big thing with Johann is that he didn't come in and try to change everything. There's probably plenty of things he'd still like to change about us but he knows he can't do it mid-season," Holland added.

Van Graan came to Munster with a reputation as a technical coach, big on detail but one of the most striking aspects of his five months in charge has been how he uses language to sell his vision.

"When you walk through those doors you can taste winning," he said about Munster's base at UL soon after his arrival.

Five days before their Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon, he was in a particularly emotive mood.

He cranked up the imagery and used rhetoric like "heroes are never born in times of peace", "you want to go to war with warriors. I saw warriors this morning", "rugby games are won in the hearts of men" and he constantly references "the Munster way".

In the cold light of print this kind of talk can come-off as corny and even outdated. Maybe it's because we like to think we've moved on from Irish teams espousing emotion to win games. The national team is one which trades off technical supremacy more than anything else.

"Irish teams used to rely on the passion and the emotion to win big games but I think now we trust our rugby to do it and that's a far more stable place in a winning environment," Ireland team analyst Vinny Hammond said last month following Ireland's Grand Slam win.

However, there remains a place for van Graan's kind of public emotive talk with Munster because it just fits. When I interviewed him the week of the Toulon game, I was taken aback at how positive he was and told him so after the interview.

The odds were adding up against Munster: the Ireland players were back for the first time since January with only five days to prepare for the quarter-final and injuries were stacking-up with lingering doubts over the fitness of Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway. But listening to van Graan, feeling and seeing how earnest he was, shifted my thinking.

By using that kind of rising rhetoric in public, it was like van Graan was also appealing to the rest of us to believe as well.

"It is incredible what belief can make human beings do," van Graan said after that win over Toulon.

One of the first glimpses of what Munster had come to mean to van Graan came just after the full-time whistle in the pool win over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road in December. The TV camera panned to a standing van Graan in the stands, eyes closed and head facing the heavens as if he was saying a silent prayer.

He's also immersed himself with the bigger picture - he spent time with Joe Schmidt and the Ireland squad at Carton House during the recent Six Nations in order to get an insight into how the national team environment works.

"Anything is possible in sport," was how van Graan put it this week ahead of tomorrow's Champions Cup semi-final with Racing '92.

He wasn't as emotionally-charged this time as he was in the build-up to Toulon. But his words gave hope and belief and, sometimes, holding on to that is the best part of following the Munster way.

Irish Independent

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