Saturday 16 December 2017

Van Graan will find it's a big step up from support act to main man

Rassie Erasmus has done a really good job in difficult circumstances. Part of that job has been finding a suitable replacement Photo: Sportsfile
Rassie Erasmus has done a really good job in difficult circumstances. Part of that job has been finding a suitable replacement Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Less than a week to go to the first instalment of Irish rugby's biggest match-up, and right on cue we get a break in the clouds over the coaching box in Thomond Park. It wasn't long before the unrest over Rassie Erasmus's chosen route of departure was replaced by unease about who would be filling his seat. And understandably so. The South African has done a really good job in difficult circumstances. Part of that job has been finding a suitable replacement.

So he will be breathing a bit easier now. The bonus-point win over Cardiff in Limerick yesterday gave his side their fourth victory from five league games - the same as Leinster (three wins with bonus points). And the scheduled arrival before Christmas of Johann van Graan puts some colour in the bigger picture.

There was some added intrigue over how the story broke. One minute David Wessels, outgoing coach of the disbanding Force, was the man in the frame. Then Van Graan, currently in the Springboks set-up, was the anointed one. It is unclear if Wessels knocked Munster back and Van Graan then filled the gap. Either way you have to love the one you're with, so let's see if there's a spark here.

Interesting thing: when we were enquiring in Australia about Wessels, a man intimately acquainted with the scene described him thus: "It's hard to gauge as Australian rugby is crap and the Force were just a little bit better than crap this year - but still finished in the bottom third of the competition. But he's a good guy; works hard; hungry to do well."

Good for Melbourne then, where Wessels' immediate future lies. So when it emerged that in fact Van Graan is the man, we asked the same question of a South African coach at this end of the world.

"Ja, he's a good guy; works really hard; very analytical."

Ok, so rugby is not short of grand lads who don't stroll in just in time for lunch, and don't bugger off when the clock strikes five of an evening.

Van Graan was the protégé of the combustible Heyneke Meyer, who last week made it sound like he was talking about his son and heir. Whatever, Munster are getting someone who clearly will give the job everything. What that won't include, however, is experience as a head coach. That might or might not be tempered by having been in the Bok set-up for five years - he knows at least what Test rugby looks like.

But that's an altogether different gig from day to day with a club side. It was with the Bulls that his coaching career was kick-started when Meyer promoted him from the role of analyst.

The key question now is how the chemistry will work with the other Munster coaches, as well as the players. The attraction for Erasmus when he arrived in Limerick two summers ago was in having Jacques Nienaber by his side. They were going into a new and unsettled environment but it wasn't just that they were on the same hymn sheet - more like they were collaborators on all the songs. Not sure who did the music and who wrote the lyrics, but it was a united front.

Van Graan doesn't have anyone riding shotgun. The obvious gap in the equation is over defence coach. So you'd expect the South African to pick up those duties himself until the end of the season, with Felix Jones doing the backs and Jerry Flannery the forwards. If Van Graan feels he needs someone else to run that side of things then perhaps the summer would be the best time to slot him in. We'll see.

On Saturday, against New Zealand in Cape Town, he will have his hands full feeding coach Allister Coetzee the sort of stats that have made playing the All Blacks such a harrowing experience for the Boks. On what will be his last gig as assistant you'd wonder will he slip up to his room on Saturday night and check out what happened earlier in the day in the Aviva.

Given that Munster have a day less to prepare, you'd say the advantage is with Leinster, but then Munster haven't yet had to drag their sorry asses up and down from South Africa, as Leinster have done. And they will hope that when their turn comes, in April, it will be a much better experience.

"It was an unusual trip because it was the first time for us to do it," Fergus McFadden said. "In a couple of places maybe the training facilities weren't ideal and all the rest . . . out of our comfort zone. After the first game our performance wasn't the best but we were confident going into that second game that we were going to come away with five points."

For McFadden the trip was a complete downer, having to return home ahead of the Cheetahs game with a hamstring injury. Like most of us he watched on tv the bizarre scene of another pro game played out in front of a handful of spectators - in a rugby-mad country.

"We probably got shocked a bit how good they (the Cheetahs) were. It was probably the kick up the backside we needed coming here today (RDS on Friday night). Even though we didn't get the performance we wanted I think the intent was in the right place in terms of our physicality. So if we can bring that next week along with a lot more accuracy in the set-piece . . ."

He trailed off at that point but you get the message. Leinster were the guinea pigs on that trip to South Africa and everyone has learned a lesson from their mistakes. It cost them face, points and training time, and blending the Lions back into the side added to their struggle against a good Edinburgh side on Friday night.

For this week they will have Robbie Henshaw back in the mix, as part of a squad that looks like it needs a while yet to get where they need to be. Munster, by comparison, have had fewer disruptions. And will be climbing into them on Saturday.

"The physicality is maybe only matched in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup," McFadden says of Ireland's premier fixture. "You're sore for two or three games afterwards. They're tough games but they're the ones you want to play in. When I look at the fixture list, they're definitely the first two I look for. It's generally a bit of a marker for the rest of the year, especially with those back-to-back Champions Cup games coming after."

After the stop-start nature of Leinster's preparation, they have a battle on their hands to catch up.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport