Across Europe, red antennae picked up when Stephen Larkham’s Munster exit was announced. Now. they’ll be in overdrive as news emerges that Bath have an interest in Johann van Graan whose contract expires at the end of this season.
Despite earlier reports that the South African and his coaching ticket had agreed two-year extensions, it seems all bets are off at the province whose short-term focus is fielding a team for their Heineken Champions Cup clash with Wasps on Sunday.
That may be at the forefront of Munster minds, but there is a need for calm heads as they assess the province’s strategic direction on the field.
Trophyless since 2011, they have cycled through six head coaches with four different nationalities in the past decade.
At a time when their golden generation was finishing up, they lurched from one playing identity to another; embracing and then discarding a hard-nosed Australian, a free-wheeling Kiwi, a fully local ticket headed by a local legend and an internationally respected director of rugby (DOR).
The last example was Rassie Erasmus, who chose to depart early in the 2017/’18 season and was replaced by Van Graan.
It wasn’t a like-for-like appointment.
In identifying Erasmus, Munster were clear that in their desire to have a high-powered DOR with a team of coaches working below him, but Van Graan is a technical coach who had no experience as a leading man before arriving.
Later this season, he’ll become the second-longest serving coach of the professional era. This is his fifth season in charge.
In that time, he’s guided the team to two European semi-finals and one United Rugby Championship final and has a 64pc win percentage. On paper, continuity is the biggest selling point of keeping Van Graan on board.
And yet, this will be a summer of upheaval regardless of whether the main man stays or goes.
Although Van Graan is in post since 2017, the departure of Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery in 2018 led to a change of direction. Larkham’s decision to leave will lead to another.
The Wallaby legend came in as ‘senior coach’, the role held by Stuart Lancaster at Leinster, and has a major influence on team strategy and direction. Replacing him with a figure of equivalent profile will be difficult in a crowded market.
In his new book, Keith Earls has outlined coaching churn as a “fundamental” reason behind Munster’s inability to land a major trophy in the last decade.
“Any time there’s a change in coaching staff there’s an element of starting from scratch all over again,” he wrote. “Continuity and stability are important, in my opinion, and at least we’ve had that now with Johann for the last four years.”
Van Graan has been given resources to succeed, even if he’s suffered plenty of bad luck along the way as summed up by the capture of RG Snyman who has barely been able to play a game since arriving and may leave without making an impact.
Damian de Allende has contributed on the field, but he’s rumoured to be considering an exit and if they both choose to depart there’s a major recruitment effort to be done.
If Van Graan is staying, then he’ll be an influential decision-maker in that process; if not, then Munster need clarity quickly to make sure they can identify and recruit the best possible replacements.
Although defence coach JP Ferreira is likely to go where Van Graan goes, forwards coach Graham Rowntree’s intentions are unknown.
He had the profile, experience and respect of the dressing-room to play a major role if his boss moves on.
Then, there are a host of coaches with strong Munster connections tearing up trees abroad. In terms of timing and the specificity of what they require, Racing 92’s Mike Prendergast is close to the top of the list.
Van Graan is considering his next move, but Munster have real options. A change is coming either way, it just remains to be seen how wholesale it’s going to be.