Friday 21 September 2018

Comment: Munster taking gamble in looking to a rookie mid-season with a lack of back-room back-up

Johann Van Graan Photo: Getty Images
Johann Van Graan Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Google searches for 'Johann van Graan' must have spiked pretty severely on Friday morning when news of the Springbok assistant coach's likely move to Munster emerged - and it was a similar case with 'David Wessels' a couple of days earlier when he was widely believed to be coming to Limerick.

Although Rassie Erasmus' name was not on many Irish fans' lips in 2016 when he emerged as the new director of rugby at the province, he was an established international with stellar coaching and managerial credentials, and you didn't have to look far to find them.

Despite his youth, Wessels has a body of head coaching work under his belt with the Western Force, but van Graan is moving to Ireland to take over a team in his own right for the first time.

That's if he even makes it that far, because on Saturday there was push-back from South Africa, where his boss Allister Coetzee hit out at speculation about his assistant's future.

Then, Coetzee's soon-to-be boss clouded the issue further. The weird thing about that is that Erasmus should be closer to the issue than anyone, and yet he was saying that he would like Van Graan to remain in South Africa as part of his new regime.

Perhaps the duo are playing to their base. The IRFU and Munster certainly believe they have their man, but Coetzee insisted that van Graan has not signed a deal to move to Ireland.

Reporters at his press conference after Saturday's draw with Australia described the normally affable Springbok coach as irritated as he refuted the story.

"Have you seen his contract? Has he signed anything? How can it be official?" Coetzee said.

"Has SA Rugby said something? There is nothing official.

"I don't want to talk about Johann van Graan. I think what we need to talk about is the next game and this game that has just been completed tonight.

"Johann van Graan has got no signed contract (with Munster). He's a contracted assistant coach to SA Rugby and those are the facts."

Perhaps Munster should take comfort from the fact that the South Africans are so reluctant to let the highly rated Van Graan leave, but there must also be some concern about his lack of front-line experience.

Munster entered the market at a difficult time. The likes of Dave Rennie had long been snapped up, and that forced them into a less proven market.

Described as a decent U-20 player, Van Graan didn't make the professional grade and turned his hand to a career in coaching that has seen him rise from video analyst with the Blue Bulls to assistant coach with the Boks.

Last year, he was poised to join Bath as an interim head coach but SARU blocked that move.

Now, he is on the cusp of one of the biggest jobs in European club rugby, a role that will test his skill-set to the fullest.

The sudden, shocking death of Anthony Foley almost a year ago changed the nature of Erasmus's task last season and forced him on to the training pitch.

He was supposed to be operating behind the scenes, allowing Foley and his coaches to run the show as he oversaw the entire set-up and planned ahead with recruitment.

The position was created after Foley struggled with the scope of the head coach's job, in part due to his own inexperience and that of his coaching team.

Erasmus arrived with vast experience and never really got to do the job he signed up for. He spoke of his frustration with the constraints placed on his time towards the end of last season, when he was trying to find a replacement for Donnacha Ryan while also preparing the team for the coming games.

With Jacques Nienaber also departing, leaving the province with just Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery in situ in the back-room team, Munster are really on the look-out for half a coaching team, considering they started last season with Erasmus and a team of four beneath him.

Although they wanted to pair Van Graan with Wessels, it now appears likely that the new boss will get through to the end of the season with the current ticket.

Already, it is a big step up for a highly regarded career coach who interviewed his way into the job and has the respect of his fellow coaches.

He is known for his meticulous attention to detail, his technical skills, his empathy and his work ethic.

An excellent profile written by South African journalist Brenden Nel in 2014 points out that he is so popular among players that he is a perennial groomsman at their weddings. But the top job calls for distance, so he will need to amend his style as he makes the big decisions on selection and player retention.

Perhaps the IRFU will lend him some support, as they did when Andy Farrell was seconded to the province in 2016 before Erasmus' appointment, or maybe they will fill roles from within and we will see Paul O'Connell stepping up from the Academy to take a more senior role.

Clearly, Munster have work to do to ink the deal and get it over the line, even if Garret Fitzgerald only has to phone his own director of rugby Erasmus to find out exactly what's going on.

Arriving mid-season will be a challenge for Van Graan, but he will get time to transition before being left to his own devices.

He deserves time to put his own stamp on the province before judgement is cast, but he will soon learn how high-profile his new gig is. The fan-base have been waiting a long time for silverware and are surely sick of change.

As Leinster will attest, appointing relatively unknown coaches can reap rich rewards, and everyone will hope Van Graan succeeds, but there is no denying his appointment is a gamble.

Irish Independent

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