Friday 24 January 2020

Brendan Fanning: 'Johann van Graan is in Munster long enough to understand three things - and he might not like them'

Munster head coach Johann van Graan at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Picture the scene: the locals are making a beeline for the bars in the Kingspan to celebrate hosing with cold water a team who unloaded more than 60 points on them in Limerick last season.

Meantime, high up in the back of the grandstand, Munster coach Johann van Graan is facing the music, a playlist chosen by the media. And they're not featuring anything he can sing along with.

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The tunes in his head are more country and western. Top of his personal hit parade are not doozies about momma running off with the cowboy next door, but close nonetheless: the IRFU are the bad guys, raiding his ranch and making off with all his boys.

And he has a point.

Van Graan waved off a dozen men in red to the World Cup in Japan, and was proud to have done so. The pain came in losing them for two of the three Christmas interpros because of the IRFU's Player Management Programme. With only three Ulster players making the 31-man squad for RWC (one of whom, Rory Best, is now retired), and two from Connacht, both Dan McFarland and Andy Friend were spared the wholesale rotation required to get through the best-attended games in the PRO14 schedule.

It also follows that their squads lacked the quality to be raided by Joe Schmidt in the first place.

The last high point for Munster was the bonus-point win in Swansea against an Ospreys team who played well above themselves. Since then they've drawn in Limerick with Racing in the Heineken Champions Cup, lost in Cork to Edinburgh in the PRO14, and traded equally with Saracens in the back-to-backs: winning at home and losing away. Next was a very good away win over Connacht, followed by defeats to Leinster and Ulster.

Over those seven games, van Graan used 39 starters. There would be a polar swing from Europe to PRO14, then back again depending on players being managed by the IRFU. And, of course, injuries. Yes, it's a lot of traffic, but they weren't the only ones travelling this road. And in the three European games, which yielded a draw, a win and a loss, there was minimal change. The coach was able to put out the same back line in all three, and 11 forwards covered the eight starting berths across those games. Not exactly carnage.

Van Graan knew what he was getting into when he succeeded Rassie Erasmus. As an experienced coach he understood the attrition rate in rugby, and as a meticulous man he would have done enough research on the Irish system to know the ups and downs of serving provincial and national masters.

That he was succeeding Erasmus didn't help. Leaving through one door you had a man of charm and charisma but also - let's be honest about this - someone capable of calculated disingenuousness, as illustrated by the 'of course I'm staying, oh, actually I'm going' nature of his status as Munster coach before jumping over to South Africa.

Van Graan struggles sometimes with the language itself - fair enough - and doesn't exude the warmth that comes so easily to Erasmus.

It was pointed out to us last week that van Graan's relationship with Peter O'Mahony isn't what it should be. If the captain's demeanour at press conferences is anything to go by when, win, lose or draw he comes across like a bulldog licking spit off a nettle, then you could understand that might be a challenge. Some lesser-used players would also have an issue with the coach over game-time, or what they consider to be promises of game-time undelivered. That would hardly be unique in any squad setting, amateur or professional.

Interestingly, Van Graan is rated highly by the IRFU, who were happy to sign off on his contract extension. Having signed initially in November 2017 through to June 2020, last April Munster moved to keep him on board for another two years. If David Nucifora wasn't in favour it would hardly have happened.

"There was a significant amount of interest from other clubs so it was always going to be a challenge to retain the services of a coach of Johann's calibre," Munster's then-acting CEO Philip Quinn said at the time.

A month later his then assistants, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, decided they would be moving on, the suddenness of which left van Graan with two holes to fill ahead of this season. Enter Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree. The reaction to them seems positive, and the former Wallaby has made a difference to Munster's attack.

Friday night in Belfast, however, was woeful. Men in red got smacked about the place. It didn't help that two of their handful of marquee names, O'Mahony and Keith Earls, seemed powerless to influence what was happening.

Afterwards van Graan pointed to the combination of injuries and the IRFU-induced rotation as key elements in the form that has seen just two wins in the last seven games.

The inescapable implication is that the squad depth can't cope with that intrusion, especially when you fall into the deep end of a European pool.

He is there long enough now to understand three things: complaining about the Player Management Programme is like giving out about your wife to your mother-in-law; Munster's struggle with player development started before he arrived; and, perhaps hardest to swallow, he'd be better off recruiting from Leinster, the chief supplier of human resources in the Irish game, rather than dialling up contacts in South Africa.

Happy New Year.

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