Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: Evolution, not revolution, is needed in Van Graan gamble

Munster's new head coach Johann Van Graan. Photo: Getty Images
Munster's new head coach Johann Van Graan. Photo: Getty Images
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

At the launch of the Champions Cup season earlier this month, Munster captain Peter O'Mahony was guarded in his answers to a few questions but when it came to the replacement for Rassie Erasmus and the collective responsibility of the players, O'Mahony spoke more sternly than he had at any other point in the interview.

"We've a direction that we're going. The person who comes in is not going to change our minds or what way we're going," O'Mahony stated. "He's going to have his own stamp on things, he's going to have his own tweaks. We've a process in place and the players are driving that. You'd like to think they (head coaches) are more facilitators than dictators nowadays".

When Johann van Graan was confirmed as Munster's new head coach on Wednesday the easy reaction was to be more concerned with what he wasn't rather than with what he is.

Van Graan has no head coach experience. Well, neither did Joe Schmidt when he came to Leinster.

Van Graan is only 37. But Michael Cheika was only 38 when he took over at Leinster.

Van Graan has no understanding of the workings of Irish rugby. Then again, neither did Pat Lam, nor Schmidt nor Cheika and they all won trophies.

Van Graan never played at the top level. Neither did two of the most successful coaches ever involved with Irish rugby - Schmidt and Declan Kidney.

Van Graan didn't even have a Wikipedia page until this week. Ah, here.

Van Graan is stacked with experience from working with the Bulls and the Springboks as an assistant coach but his appointment still feels like the biggest gamble Munster have made for a new head coach.

Tony McGahan was a natural successor to Declan Kidney in 2008. Rob Penney had been head coach of Canterbury since 2006 when he took over at Munster in 2012. The late Anthony Foley's promotion following Penney's departure was also an obvious step.

While the announcement of Erasmus as director of rugby initially seemed messy with the restructuring of the pecking order last summer, the South African was a coup for Munster, even if his time here will be shorter than expected.

In a Munster statement to announce Penney as their new head coach in May 2012, Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald didn't elaborate beyond the words that "Rob Penney's record speaks for itself".

With Van Graan, his record doesn't really speak for itself as he doesn't have a record as head coach, so this time Fitzgerald fleshed out the appointment a bit more: "In Johann we are getting a recognised rugby intellectual with a proven track record and extensive experience working with a national side", and "an analyst of the game, his technical ability and interpersonal skills have made him an integral member of the South African rugby landscape for over a decade".

The concern is that irrespective of Erasmus's help in handing over the reins of the province to ensure "a seamless transition", Van Graan is still coming in at the deep end.

There is risk with any appointment but to assess the gamble of Van Graan is to figure out what it is Munster expect of him. He will join a team which made a Champions Cup semi-final and a PRO12 final last season.

After their 46-22 hammering by Scarlets last May, Erasmus said "we can only grow so much in a year and hopefully next year we can win a title". It is easy to push back against an assumption that Van Graan will simply take up where Erasmus leaves off because he doesn't have that experience and neither will he have defence coach Jacques Nienaber.

From the soundings from South Africa, Van Graan has a reputation for being a hard-working, affable and knowledgeable coach. Peter O'Mahony had some involvement in the recruitment process so maybe Van Graan is someone who seems a better fit to what O'Mahony and Co feel they need in their development rather than a more experienced coach like Kieran Keane at Connacht, for example.

Maybe what they wanted was not just a head coach who could mould Munster but also a head coach who Munster could mould.

That fusion between the old and new got lost in previous regimes like when Penney tried to bring in a new style which was beyond the skill-set of the team at that time and which they didn't have the time to see through.

"If he (Penney) believed we had it in us to play that way, I didn't have a problem with where he wanted us to go. I did feel, though, that we needed to marry some of what we were traditionally good at with this new way of playing," Paul O'Connell said in his autobiography 'The Battle'.

As one guy put it to O'Connell about their change in mind-set and style under Penney: "When you've only ever used a hammer, you're going to find it hard to work with screws."

Undoubtedly, Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery will point this out to Van Graan. This coaching team has a current average age of just 35. Young, inexperienced coaching teams here have shown they need the reinforcing hand of experience, with Stuart Lancaster joining Leinster last year and Erasmus at Munster.

A coaching team of just three is light and surely Munster and the IRFU will need to revisit the option of a director of rugby role because this Munster coaching team needs to be given every chance to succeed.

Going off what O'Mahony said, Van Graan won't need to make major changes to the culture and chemistry because the set-up seems to be driven by the players more than anyone else.

They need to develop their game and be given the screws to do that by Van Graan. It's not revolution he needs to bring, but constructive and effective evolution.

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