Tuesday 16 July 2019

Neil Francis: Rassie Erasmus left Munster in the s**t - now the van Graan gamble simply has to pay off


Just two weeks in the Munster hot seat, the spotlight has quickly fallen on Johann van Graan as the province tries to fend off suitors for Peter O’Mahony and now CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Just two weeks in the Munster hot seat, the spotlight has quickly fallen on Johann van Graan as the province tries to fend off suitors for Peter O’Mahony and now CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Van Graan? Sounds like a German battleship sunk in the mid-Atlantic during the Second World War with all hands on deck.

What are the odds on finding another Joe Schmidt? Legend tells us that Isa Nacewa half knew Joe Schmidt when he was assistant coach in Auckland before he became assistant coach in Clermont. Dorothy clicks her red shoes twice and suddenly we have the Wizard of Oz.

In coaching terms, there is nothing more dangerous than a prospective candidate with a glittering CV. Laurie Fisher and Tony McGahan both had great CVs but what their teams produced was bilge. Sometimes great coaches just arrive and you see their quality straight away and their team react to them like a jump lead battery.

We know very little about how Johann van Graan became Munster coach. David Wessels was Rassie Erasmus' first recommendation but he was lured to Melbourne by the Rebels. The Rassie Recommendation then went to Van Graan and, mid-season with not a huge amount of talent out there, Munster took a leap of faith - but guided by the influence of Erasmus.

Now that Erasmus has gone we can maybe grade his contribution to Munster rugby.

First off, jumping ship mid-season is unforgivable. I find that the politics of the better offer reprehensible. The conventional excuse that all is fair in modern professional sport is pretty risible.

Forget about what the contract does or does not state - Erasmus left Munster in the s**t. Word, bond, loyalty, team - they are all buzz words and punchlines!

Was Erasmus a good coach or director of rugby? Yes he was. He knew what he was doing. Erasmus won 19 of 22 matches in the Guinness PRO12 to finish top of the heap. Under his stewardship, Munster won five out of six pool games to garner a home quarter-final in Thomond where they thumped Toulouse 41-16.

The nub of the matter came when they had to up it a gear to meet the stronger teams in the semi-finals and finals of the big competitions.

Hard at this stage to gauge whether their PRO12 final against the Scarlets in the Aviva was an underperformance or a non-performance - 22-46 did not really come close to illustrating the divide in class on the day. How could that team who knew the significance of that final play so badly?

Saracens' win in the Heineken semi-final also at the Aviva by a scoreline of 10-26 also underlines what a brave and resilient side Munster were - Saracens could easily have put another 26 points on top of what was already amassed on the day.

After an impressive regular season, Munster simply fell asunder in matches where at the very least you would have expected them to front up and go at their opponents.

Saracens, in particular, probably expected more from Munster and only realised later in the game that what they expected from Munster wasn't going to happen and their superiority on the pitch did not translate onto the scoreboard because they gave Munster too much respect.

Those two collapses by the players who took the pitch at the business end of the competition, how much can we attribute to Erasmus? Good coaches get you to the finals, great coaches win them - simple as that.

Should Munster be taking advice from their hastily-departing coach? Maybe they didn't have much choice. I suspect when Erasmus has his feet in firmly under the desk in South Africa, the first thing he will do is customise a set of concrete leg warmers for Allister Coetzee.

It would have been interesting to see what happened if Johann van Graan had stayed. Would he have gone the same way as his head coach?

The Springbok results over the years under Heyneke Meyer and the lamentable Allister Coetzee have been mortifying. Van Graan seems to have walked out of two calamitous tenures smelling of roses. He is either very good or he has some seriously good PR people.

Van Graan is first and foremost a video analyst who has worked his way up from that post to forwards coach, assistant coach and now top dog.

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were a good team. Erasmus is a big-picture guy who had played at the very highest level. He was supplemented by a nuts-and-bolts partner with a PhD in defensive strategy who looked after the practical side of things. Big business and sport are littered with these kind of partnerships. Whither Van Graan?

Van Graan does a huge amount of empirical analysis that most video geeks do - work ethic and attention to detail. What can players do for the team?

In the movie 'Moneyball', Brad Pitt's character Billy Beane took a sabermetric approach to baseball - purely analytical - the value of a player to achieve certain crucial goals in any given play. Who could get to first base most often? The macho big hitter or the guy who statistically got there more often that the big hitter - buy him and play him instead.

Marrying what Munster traditionally do with incremental improvements in certain areas of play may not be the answer either. Rob Penny had his ideas - they didn't work.

The concept of Moneyball was that you get a team to compete with the big cats who had loads of money while you had the lowest salary cap in the league.

It is an unfortunate paradox that in the Champions Cup you have to have money to play Moneyball. Munster are broke and are currently struggling to keep all of their big names.

They did reasonably well to fill some of the gaps in their roster but the same problems will confront them when they swim out to the deeper channels.

They don't have a big, aggressive, ball-carrying, imposing second-row pairing and they have no reserve strength of any kind there. They have a super back-row but no reserve strength.

Their out-half who played very well for a full season hasn't been seen since he damaged his neck again and Munster must play Ian Keatley here again.

JJ Hanrahan was brought back here but they will do the same thing they did before he left for Northampton - they won't pick him.

Munster's midfield is like a casualty ward - long term they will struggle here. Only in the front-row, back-row and back three do they have solidity and consistency. Van Graan has to plan everything around one man: Conor Murray - not good when you espouse the team dynamic.

This appointment is a huge risk - it is unfortunate that Munster had very few options. They are also constrained by the fact that they cannot afford another short-term coaching appointment.

This appointment simply must work. Van Graan has limited financial and playing resources. If he was wondering about his propensity and suitability for a top job, he will find out pretty quickly whether he is up to it - mid-January to be precise.

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