Wednesday 12 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'One year on, Van Graan's blueprint taking shape'

Rory Scannell takes a kick during training while Billy Holland and head coach Johann Van Graan consult their notes. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory Scannell takes a kick during training while Billy Holland and head coach Johann Van Graan consult their notes. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Three-hundred-and-sixty-six days have flown by in the life of Johann van Graan who conceded this week that he is better prepared for the European back-to-back games this time around.

A year ago, the South African was a relatively unknown quantity who famously didn't even have a Wikipedia page to his name when Munster appointed him as Rassie Erasmus's mid-season replacement.

Highly regarded within coaching circles and much-loved within the Springbok set-up where he was assistant to Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, Van Graan did not have much of a playing CV and had operated largely in the shadows in his previous roles.

There were question marks over his lack of profile and experience back then and, while he hasn't answered everything just yet, it is fair to say he has made a strong fist of a challenging first year.

Considering the circumstances, Van Graan hit the ground running a year ago; following up a Guinness PRO14 win over Ospreys with impressive performances home and away to Leicester to sustain a campaign that would ultimately see the province return to the Champions Cup semi-final for the second successive season.

Publicly, he has conducted himself well - maintaining a habit of shaking everyone's hand when he walks into a room, engaging with each query and saying the right things.

That's despite having to negotiate some choppy waters along the way.

Van Graan's first press conference was overshadowed by reports that Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander were considering following Simon Zebo out the exit door and, while he battled to stay on-message, he was instantly fighting the kind of fires that come with the high-profile position.

After Christmas and a humbling home defeat to Leinster, he became engulfed in a controversy of others' making as he prepared to give Gerbrandt Grobler his competitive debut and fielded questions on his compatriot's two-year doping ban.

Furore

Again, the 38-year-old dealt with the situation as best he could given he hadn't been involved in recruiting Grobler but he was a member of his dressing-room.

In the midst of the furore, the coach and his team managed to qualify for the European quarter-finals, beating Toulon before ultimately running aground in the semi-final against Racing 92. In the PRO14, they got to the same stage but in-season blips cost them home advantage and a trip to the RDS proved a journey too far.

The disappointment was obvious in the aftermath of both of those losses, but reaching the latter stages was an achievement for a squad who underwent such change mid-season.

This is the campaign on which Van Graan will be judged.

Last year, he limited himself to tweaking the existing systems of play; throwing in small tricks like putting Conor Murray up in the lineout and encouraging a wider style of play, but ultimately trusting in the work put down by Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber before they departed and in the know-how of his assistants Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery.

The summer arrivals helped; Tadhg Beirne was already on his way but, while the IRFU got most of the credit (or blame if you're a Leinster supporter), Van Graan still had to persuade Joey Carbery that a move south was right for his career.

Industry sources report the market as being less than buoyant right now, but it is still noticeable that Munster got their most important contract work nice and early this year.

Losing front-liners like Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo to France weakened the team and hinted at a loss of direction, but when Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Jean Kleyn and a host of others signed on for another couple of years it was a ringing endorsement of the direction Van Graan is taking the team.

On the pitch, it is clear to see the team taking on a wider approach and the missing link, Murray, should enable them to take that game-plan on to the next level from this week on.

There has been a huge focus on the players' catch-pass skills as they look to eradicate the errors they made in the defeat to Leinster at the end of last season.

Having watched the team look so limited with ball in hand against Saracens in the season before he came in, Van Graan has made it his mission to add layers to their game-plan and the players have spoken positively about the new attacking direction.

In the media, he sometimes veers into the language of self-help books and mantras but it is clear his message is getting through.

The other big takeaway from his first season was the need to get league form up to a consistent level to try and ensure a top place in the conference, which ensures a week off and a home semi-final in the PRO14.

The early struggles away from home put them on the back foot, but they have since gone on a winning run and their last-gasp victory over Glasgow was a big moment in their campaign.

Should they negotiate their next two weeks against Castres, Munster will be well on their way to the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and while they are chasing down the Scottish side at the top of Conference A. The real proving ground of their progress will come in April and May, but there are signs that the team are buying in fully to what their coach wants them to do.

A year into the job, Van Graan is coming into his own after a tough introduction to life as a head coach.

And his Munster team are beginning to bear his imprint.

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