Sunday 25 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Van Graan needs real support if he is to overcome latest Munster setback'

Forwards coach Jerry Flannery with attack coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile
Forwards coach Jerry Flannery with attack coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Back in October, Munster launched their strategic plan from 2018-2021 and set out their mission in bold capital letters. "Our vision transcends Ireland, Europe, and the sport of rugby and purposely so," it read. "Munster wants to be THE BEST CLUB IN THE WORLD."

There is nothing subtle about block capitals, the ambition is there for everyone to see. It is going to be difficult to achieve such status if days like yesterday keep occurring.

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On the face of it, the decision of Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery to reject contract offers and leave at the end of the season is a setback for Johann van Graan and the province. With less than three weeks left in the season, the timing is awful.

The South African's mission is to turn it into a positive by replacing the pair with high-calibre coaches who can help bring the province on from their current position as perennial semi-finalists .

The coming weeks could define the head coach's time in charge, but there is a sense he is operating with one hand tied behind his back.

Losing two key figures in his backroom staff, both of whom are popular with the squad, at this stage of the season is not a good look.

At least he was already looking to add experience to his coaching ticket and it is clear that the team's attacking strategy needs work.

Still, it is clear that Flannery and Jones were part of the plans. Last summer, Munster went to the expense of sending the duo to New Zealand to up-skill, while Jones had toured with Ireland and even turned down the chance to join Rassie Erasmus at the Springboks to continue in his role.

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Now, they are heading for the exit and the coach has a couple of weeks to find a new attack coach, a forwards coach and a scrum coach.

With so many potential candidates already tied down for next season - or at least until the World Cup - Van Graan has a real challenge.

The post-Japan merry-go-round will throw up a couple of experienced names like Rob Howley who is understood to be in talks about a role as attack coach, but they won't be available until November which undermines the idea that they can have a real influence on strategy for next season.

The frustration will be felt amongst a player group who have remained competitive despite a high turnover of coaches. Indeed, the latest upheaval comes just weeks after it looked like they had finally achieved stability when Van Graan himself signed a new contract until 2022 last month and has his compatriot JP Ferreira locked down as defence coach until 2021.

The plan was to keep the other coaches, but Jones' influence was to be curbed by the senior attack coach. That clearly factored into the former full-back's decision and when he decided not to extend his stay, then Flannery walked too.

There is no way that was part of the coach or the club's strategy.

Van Graan, it should be remembered, is essentially Munster's director of rugby. At Leinster, his role is split between three people in Guy Easterby, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster but the Reds have charged their first-time head coach with taking charge of recruitment, retention and on-pitch performance.

In 2016, when Anthony Foley was struggling with the workload, they opted to bring in Erasmus as director of rugby but Foley's tragic death meant he was pressed into doing more coaching than planned.

Rather than replace a director of rugby and a coach when Erasmus returned to South Africa, they decided to wrap them all back into one role all over again. So, Van Graan has a major strategic decision to make at a time when he should be focusing on his team's last chance at a trophy this season.

He is a hard worker who brings a positive mindset and he'll see the opportunity amidst the crisis.

He has a clean slate to structure his new coaching team. Options are limited by the timing, but IRFU performance director David Nucifora has a strong contacts book, while a number of prominent heroes from the Munster past are available.

Whether they are the right fit remains to be seen, but Van Graan and Munster must get this appointment right or risk letting their vision slip further away.

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