Thursday 22 August 2019

Tony Ward: As O'Gara takes big step in his career, Van Graan will need wise heads around him

New Munster coach could do a lot worse than turn to the likes of Kidney to kick-start regime

New coach Munster Johann van Graan speaks with technical coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile
New coach Munster Johann van Graan speaks with technical coach Felix Jones. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Tomorrow at the Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma, the Johann van Graan era in Munster Rugby begins. What those of us who care about Munster rugby want is a smooth transition between a coach who oversaw a unique period in the game down south and, as David Campese, in his inimitable Campo way, described the new main man, "a mate of a mate".

It is natural in all sporting codes to work where possible within a comfort zone or with people you know so we'll not knock Van Graan or the Munster professional game management board on that one. It is natural and happens in every walk of life around the world.

Confirmation that Ronan O'Gara is indeed to move to Canterbury as assistant coach to Scott Robertson at the Crusaders is a good news story - hopefully with Munster and Irish rugby the beneficiary down the road. But it's clear Dan Carter played a central role. It is the way of the world and a modus operandi I would fully endorse.

Even Van Graan's much-hyped and long overdue arrival - the previous regime should have been gone back in May - has been topped by O'Gara's decision to up sticks and head to New Zealand with pretty much immediate effect.

It's a brave move and while my admiration for Jessica and her wholehearted support with five children to look after holds no bounds - she is a remarkable lady - the former Munster and Ireland legend is leaving no stone unturned in his desire to be the best coach he can possibly be.

Talented underage players who for whatever reason don't make it into the various academies at home have my utmost respect when continuing to chase that pro dream through foreign fields - former Blackrock College schoolboy Oliver Jager, also at the Crusaders, is a case in point.


Far from shutting the door on these hugely committed young men, the IRFU should be (and I would like to think are) monitoring the progress of our rugby-playing diaspora around the globe. But back to ROG. As a player, he was as stubborn as a mule with the determination to match. He was and is a perfectionist when it comes to rugby. He was what Johnny Sexton now is, the original of the species.

On a personal level, he would phone me intermittently to ask me why I said whatever it was I might have said about his most recent performance. Yes, he was taking me to task in a manner in which I or no other player of my generation would have done with say Ned van Esbeck, Seán Diffley or any other respected rugby journalist of that time.

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His conversations with me weren't ego-driven but were very much geared towards making him the best out-half he could possibly be for club, province and country. It is that steely determination that is being carried lock, stock and smoking barrel into his coaching ambition now.

It is a fickle business and much of course depends on being in the right place at the right time when overseeing the right bunch of talented players. Show me a successful coach and I'll show you some useful players. The best coaches design strategy around players and not vice-versa. Rob Penney, a proven coach yet one with even greater potential, discovered that to his detriment at Munster prior to Axel taking over.

Great players don't necessarily make great coaches indeed few do. It takes a different mindset entirely. As a player, you think for yourself, as a captain for your team-mates but as head coach for everybody. It is 24/7, 365 days a year. Like most I would love to see O'Gara and Paul O'Connell one day become the dream ticket at Munster. I'm not sure it will ever materialise but with O'Connell at the Academy and on tap and with O'Gara quite literally trawling the planet in search of knowledge and improvement, the seeds are definitely being sown.

And much though I admire players chasing the dream, it is a free and easy period in their young lives. For coaches moving abroad to increase opportunity it is so much more than that. Bernard Jackman, Michael Bradley (currently coaching Zebre), Conor O'Shea, Mikey Prendergast, Jeremy Davidson, Gavin Hickie, Aaron Dundon, Greg McWilliams are just some of those bucking the trend.

As Greg Feek, such a central figure in Joe Schmidt's Ireland coaching team, articulated best in an interview with Ruaidhri O'Connor in these pages, "six months down the line, you will hear the benefit of it (O'Gara's move to Canterbury) through the cross-pollination of ideas".

You don't need a Kiwi accent to be at the top of the coaching tree but given the lead that New Zealand holds over everybody else, there is no better training ground. One thing you can be sure is that the Leeside accent won't be impacted, however long Rog and the family spend in Christchurch. Or again, as Feek puts it best, "the only thing they (Crusaders) might need is an interpreter".

But back to matters much more immediate and Van Graan's first match in charge albeit in an observing capacity. If nothing else Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber overstaying their time at UL has provided Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones with the opportunity to take control from Monday to Friday at least. There is too a much understated element in this attempt at continuity and that is in the guise of team manager Niall O'Donovan.

Niallo is a lot more than a straight administrator or logistics 'go-to'. His rugby knowledge as former Shannon and Munster No 8 has been tapped into by every head coach from Declan Kidney on. My wish, and I make no apologies for repeating it now, is that Kidney be brought back in on a part-time consultancy basis.

This is a young coaching team, all three in their thirties. You simply cannot buy experience and with the Kidney/O'Donovan combination well proven, it's worth recalling that they had their own font of knowledge in Brian O'Brien as team manager back then.

It is a proven formula in most codes and would I suggest take little convincing (for Kidney) in order to put it together. Everything Garret Fitzgerald does is in the best interests of Munster Rugby and while I disagree with the manner in which he, and by extension David Nucifora and the IRFU, indulged Erasmus and Nienaber, he could put the final piece in the jigsaw by giving Kidney a call.

As for Van Graan, we wish him nothing but the best. Heyneke Meyer describes him as a "people person and players' coach . . . He is the type of person who will remember your birthday and listen to your problems". The name Kidney ring any bells?

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