Wednesday 21 February 2018

'Change is good, it was time for me to spread my wings' - Van Graan

Johann Van Graan keeps a watchful eye on his Munster players during training in UL. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
Johann Van Graan keeps a watchful eye on his Munster players during training in UL. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Johann van Grann knows there are sceptics who wonder about his credentials.

He was never a senior professional having swapped his playing career for a dream of coaching aged 21 and until now he has largely lived in the shadows, assisting others as a unit coach.

Legendary Australia winger David Campese has questioned whether his appointment was a 'jobs for the boys' scenario, others have wondered at a rookie taking over from the vastly-experienced Rassie Erasmus.

Such is the profile of his new job.

That is what he wanted, however. Although his name was not widely known, his reputation in coaching circles has grown to the extent that Bath made an approach last year. The South African rugby union blocked that move, but when Munster came in looking for him to replace Erasmus he couldn't resist.

After a decade and a half assisting others, it was time to take the chance on his own.

So, yesterday morning he gathered the wider Munster squad and staff together and sold his vision. An hour or so later, he stood before the cameras as the province's supremo for the first time.

Overseas

Although he is the coach, whereas Erasmus was the director of rugby, his remit is the same. The scope of the role was immediately apparent as he fielded questions on the overseas interest in Peter O'Mahony, additions to his current coaching ticket, the current injury crisis, his ambitions, inexperience, philosophy and the Springboks' recent record over the course of 40 minutes or more.

When he was done, it was back to preparing for the primary job - Saturday's meeting with Ospreys at Irish Independent Park.

He hasn't slept much in recent weeks and it's no surprise given the breadth of the job he has taken on.

Given the determination on show yesterday, he is keen to make a strong first impression.

"You know if it doesn't go well people will say: 'well that's his first head coach job'," he conceded.

"I say, 'you've got to start somewhere. For every new beginning in life you have got to fly on your own, I'm embracing it and obviously the people that appointed me saw something in me that they liked and hopefully I can repay that faith. In my eyes it's not about me, it's always about the team."

The "somewhere" he's starting just happens to be one of European rugby's strongest brands and the Irish province that draws more eyes than any other.

He awoke to see details of O'Mahony's contract negotiations splashed across a national newspaper, before reviewing an injury bulletin that left him very short on backline options for the upcoming period.

Taking over mid-season was never going to be easy, but he is delving deep into his midfield depth chart after losing Chris Farrell for up to eight weeks while question marks remain over Tyler Bleyendaal's neck problem.

After Ospreys this Saturday, his next seven games include Champions Cup clashes with Leicester Tigers back-to-back, Castres and Racing 92 as well as derbies against all three provinces.

It will be January 22 before he comes up for any air and by then Munster will know where they truly stand this season.

They are second in Conference A of the PRO14 and second to Tigers in a tight European pool.

So, after outlining his ambitions it will be back to hard facts and a tough schedule. It's a good job he's embracing the move.

"I believe the only certain thing in life is change," he said.

"Change is good. I needed another challenge. I've been assistant coach now for a very long time.

"Like I said before I had wanted different opportunities a few years back, but I felt it was the right stage for me to move on, spread my wings. I have got big dreams but that being said I need to be part of something bigger than myself.

"Becoming a better coach; becoming a better human being; I believe the reason why I do this is firstly because I love rugby, and secondly because I'd like to believe that I make a difference in people's lives.

"It doesn't matter where in the world you are, you can do both.

"I had two years left on my contract in South Africa, but at the end of last year everybody involved knew that once the right opportunity came it was something that'd I'd want to pursue.

"I'd like to thank SA Rugby for granting me permission to come here. You never know what happens after this. I'd like to coach an international team someday, but that's a long way into the future."

Before then, it's about getting to grips with the day-to-day running of the two-time European champions.

He wants to recruit a defence coach, has already begun plotting his transfer targets for next season and he's open to talking to as many knowledgeable locals as he can with Paul O'Connell, Doug Howlett and Declan Kidney on his list after engaging the thoughts of Gert Smal and Wian du Preez.

He is open to the idea of hiring an experienced consultant should the need arise.

"I've got no ego. I'd like to explore every possible avenue, learn as much as I can as quickly as I can," he said.

"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 and kind of take it from there and decide who might be involved as consultants or not."

Again, when it comes to recruitment, he'll take advice.

"I've had Rassie's view. I've had Felix and Fla's view," he said. "After the weekend, I was so impressed with a guy like Sam Arnold that I didn't know before.

"There are certain positions we'd like to look at. With Simon (Zebo) leaving, full-back is a position we might fill from the inside or the outside.

"I've a pretty good idea. I think the strength of Irish rugby at this stage is the working relationship between the IRFU and the provinces and that's something I've bought into and we'll do our planning accordingly.

"I'd love to have had a pre-season to get to know guys but I'm slap-bang in the middle of going into Europe, Christmas. I see it as an opportunity, a lot of bases to cover."

It's a massive challenge for a man embarking on the role for the first time but he appears to be up for it.

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