Tuesday 15 October 2019

Neil Francis: Munster coach van Graan must prove that he has the personality and aptitude for the job

30 April 2018; Head coach Johann van Graan during Munster Rugby Squad Training at University of Limerick, Co Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
30 April 2018; Head coach Johann van Graan during Munster Rugby Squad Training at University of Limerick, Co Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We can say for certain now that pressure is not just for tyres and bra straps.

As a Premiership ethos moves into the PRO14, the pressure on directors of rugby has increased significantly - even if you are winning.

Johann van Graan is coach to a semi-final side. Munster are good enough to get to the penultimate game but no further - this has been the way for 10 years.

You class a coach on how much further he can take you past your recognised limits.

If Joe Schmidt was coaching Munster he would have sent the academy (what's left of it) to South Africa and Munster would comfortably have got through against Racing, who are a long way short of world-beaters.

It is hard to know whether Van Graan has the personality or the aptitude to be Munster's coach.

There are six pretty competitive teams left in the PRO14 play-offs. It is important for coach and club that they exceed expectations here. The coach has been in situ since November - time enough to give direction to any team.

It is always interesting to look at the personalities of his predecessors.

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Declan Kidney was an unemotional coach. Piety and humility were his chief characteristics and all thoughts, actions and deeds were infused with classic understatement.

Kidney was not a noted tactician but his strength was his man-management and powers of motivation.

His successors, Tony McGahan and Rob Penney, probably didn't have the behavioural disposition or emotional intelligence to handle what was still a very good Munster squad. Cold fish the pair of them, and they were dispatched.

Anthony Foley was an emotional being but clammed up a bit and his undoubted prowess as a natural leader on the pitch never translated fully while he was in charge.

Rassie Erasmus had the most potential to really take Munster forward. More than competent in all spheres of a head coach's responsibility, this could have been his season.

His departure back to South Africa means that by the time Ireland meet South Africa in the quarter-finals in Tokyo in 2019, it will be a long way off the certain Irish win it would have been under Allister Coetzee.

Erasmus is a very fine coach - though tainted by thrashings by Saracens and Scarlets at the Aviva last year. I had never seen a Munster side give up like they did in the PRO12 final last year.

Given the personalities and abilities of Munster's previous coaches you would say that only McGahan would rank below Van Graan - all others would rate above him.

Van Graan's handicap is that his squad is a long way short of the quality the others had and yet the pressure on him is the most intense.

No trophies for seven years and the leaders in the wolf pack are looking a little toothless.

Munster have little choice but to stick with the South African and hope there is some validity to the pre-signing hype.

If you get into the culture of firing coaches after a bad season or two, your situation can get worse - much worse.

In 2007, Mark McCall, Saracens' ultra-successful coach, threw in the towel with Ulster. Since that time they have hired eight new coaches - Steve Williams, Matt Williams, Brian McLaughlin, Mark Anscombe, Les Kiss, Neil Doak, Jono Gibbes and now Dan McFarland.

Gibbes is a determined individual but to throw in the towel and cite family reasons, well probably best to say nothing...

Gibbes' departure though tells you more about Ulster than it does about the Kiwi. Are all those coaches that bad or…

McFarland is a highly-respected coach according to the press officer blurb that accompanied his appointment. He had 12 losing seasons with Connacht and Glasgow's PRO12 win rests on Gregor Townsend's shoulders.

I am informed that Ulster's senior players are putting the finishing touches to reforms of their own in the short term.

Player power has its place - but nine coaches in 11 seasons makes Ulster untouchable.

What Ulster needed was a Hannibal Lecter type who would put the fear of God into the squad.

They have opted for McFarland who is a nice guy and won't upset the apple cart and will be gone in two years' time. I hope he has a strong termination clause in his contract.

A little bit of player power was also involved in the axing of Kieran Keane. Keane did not connect with his players - it must have been bad because it will cost Connacht a few shekels in compensation.

The trick now is to find a coach who is better than the man who was fired, which is not easy to do.

If they hire another coach who can't take Connacht forward, they are on the slippery slope as well.

This brings us back to Van Graan. Munster have taken a blow to the sternum and have had the wind knocked out of them.

They face an Edinburgh side this Saturday that have rarely lost in 2018. They have been bullied into form by Richard Cockerill and they play a very efficient brand of rugby.

Whatever you think of Cockerill, his influence is undeniable. Edinburgh are a very difficult side to beat and they won't go away easily.

Munster have quality but a third of their side are not up to the standard. They have a deficit at hooker, second-row, openside, outside centre and most importantly, out-half.

It tells you much about Munster's predicament that their back-three are their most dangerous unit on the field - all top-drawer internationals.

Week in, week out Ian Keatley out-plays and out-performs JJ Hanrahan in practice and in the actual matches. That is why he is picked consistently ahead of him.

Keatley starts because Tyler Bleyendaal has persistent neck condition.

Keatley plays well in 85pc of his games, it is in the other 15pc where there is no middle ground - when he bombs the crater is enormous.

What does Van Graan do? Pick the understudy and hope he plays better?

How does the coach talk up the consolation prize of a PRO14 semi-final against Leinster in Dublin if they do dispose of Edinburgh? - a team they should deal with in their sleep.

Van Graan needs to do well in this competition - he also needs to ensure Munster have a good seeding for the Champions Cup next year.

As well as that he needs to have a little pressure taken off for next season. Munster need their coach to do well as both parties look around at the coaching landscape and know it might be a good idea to maintain the status quo or they could be on the slippery slope as well.

The question remains, does the coach have the personality?

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