Friday 20 July 2018

Van Graan must learn the Munster way - De Villiers

Jean de Villiers in action for Munster back in 2009. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Jean de Villiers in action for Munster back in 2009. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

South Africa's scrum coach Matt Proudfoot is in the middle of explaining how players can benefit from leaving their system before returning to play for the Springboks, when he says: "Jean did it when he went to Ulster."

For a split second the mind races, wondering who exactly 'Jean' is, when a voice at the back of the room quickly interrupts and corrects him with more than a hint of pride.

"No, no, it was Munster," comes the voice, face hidden underneath a baseball cap.

A second glance back confirms that it is indeed Jean de Villiers who has just stepped off a plane and arrived at the Springboks' Dublin base, seemingly without the knowledge of the players.

Imminent

Given his fond memories of his time with Munster, De Villiers happily gives up some of his time to chat about Johann van Graan's imminent arrival to the place he once called home, Rassie Erasmus's departure and its impact, and why he feels the province would benefit hugely from Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara getting involved sooner rather than later.

Jean de Villiers in action for South Africa. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Jean de Villiers in action for South Africa. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Over the course of a hugely insightful conversation, the players slowly make their way to the hotel gym which happens to be near where we are chatting.

When De Villiers arrived in Munster for a season in 2009, the province knew they had a superstar on their hands but to understand just how highly he is regarded back home, the level of excitement on the faces of the Springbok players as they realised who was in the building told you everything you needed to know.

'Uncle Jean' - as he was commonly referred to by several of the players - is South Africa's fourth most-capped player and anyone who has played 109 times for the 'Boks commands serious respect.

Yesterday, De Villiers paid his first visit to Limerick since he left seven years ago.

Incoming Munster coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Incoming Munster coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A lot has changed within the province since and they are on the verge of going through yet more change as Van Graan gets set to take over in the next fortnight.

When the new Munster boss weighed up his options, De Villiers was one of the people he spoke to about what to expect and while the province may be in flux, the values of old remain the same.

"I've only got good things to say about Munster and my experience there," De Villiers enthuses. "It's an easy sell for me and for any coach or player. I think what makes Munster strong is all the stakeholders, the fans, the Munster experience, Thomond Park, just the passion they have for the game.

"You need to understand that. To be successful in the environment, you need to understand that and that needs to be the base of everything you do. I think Johann understands that and that's a good starting point.

"You don't just walk into Munster and expect to change everything and have your own way. You take into account what the club means, the history of the club and I think he will do that.

"Also, the fact that he gets the handover from Rassie and Jacques (Nienaber) helps a lot. Hopefully he can have some success."

Van Graan is untested as a head coach, which in some quarters will be viewed as a risky appointment, but speak to anyone in and around the 'Boks' camp this week and the 37-year-old is held in very high regard.

"I think it's a big challenge for him," De Villiers admits.

"It will be his first head coaching job but he has built up a lot of experience from working with the Bulls and the Springboks now for six years.

"I think what you learn at that level really stands you in good stead for a head coaching job. In the last four years when I was with the 'Boks, he did the majority of the on-field coaching.

"He has been in that role from a technical coaching point of view. Obviously from a head coach point of view, you are the last guy to make the decisions - decide on the strategy, the plans, the recruitment. It's all of that, so there is a bigger responsibility but I think he is a very talented coach.

Important

"The most important thing is that he understands the Munster culture. He's done his research in terms of the club; what the club means, what the club stands for. Once you understand that, it goes a long way."

De Villiers believes that Munster should be open to bringing a more experienced coach in along with Van Graan, just as they did by hiring Erasmus, but he is mindful that the young back-room team should not be defined by their ages alone.

"The more experience you have, the better," the 36-year-old maintains.

"Experience is not always just determined by age though. He (Van Graan) started coaching when he was 22/23, so he's been around for a long time at the highest level.

"There is certainly an element of experience there and I think coming into it with Fla (Jerry Flannery) and Felix (Jones), being Munster men, certainly helps.

"Again, it's creating that environment from a coaching point of view. They need to buy into his strategy and his plans and they need to be able to work together.

"An old, wise head is never a bad thing but again there are great opportunities with a young group that obviously want to do well and are still establishing their careers.

"You would love to see Paul O'Connell get in there. ROG maybe one day could go in. It's all set up in the right way with ROG being at Racing and having almost five years' experience there."

De Villiers battled in the trenches alongside O'Connell and O'Gara and while it may only have been for one season, he knows the value that the pair could add to the set-up.

Erasmus did a fine job in his short time with Munster but De Villiers insists that Van Graan will not look to rip up the script and start again.

"I think it will be pretty much a lot of what was established with Rassie but like any coach and any captain, you bring your own flavour to it.

"So there will be some elements of change but I think the continuation is important because, since they have taken over, the performances have been much more solid.

Naive

"There has certainly been change and change for the better of the team. I think he will be quite naive if he wants to come in and just change everything. I don't think he will do that."

Erasmus has left Van Graan with a solid platform from which to build and while some Munster supporters remain disappointed with the manner of his departure, De Villiers can understand where they are coming from, particularly because of the value he has brought to the province.

"I think it is a massive loss to Munster and a great gain to South Africa, they made a massive difference to the club," he adds.

"Obviously with Axel's situation, it could have gone either way but in true Munster style, it just united the whole team. Sometimes you need that higher purpose to get a team to play together again.

"Rassie and Jacques have got fantastic rugby brains, they know the game. They will add value wherever they go. The tricky thing with South Africa now is what will their roles within the squad be? And how do you facilitate that?

"I worked very closely with them for a very long time so I know the value that they can have. They are certainly a big loss for Munster. But I suppose the big thing for Munster now is to have some continuity.

"Hopefully Johann can stay there for three to five years and can build that squad and get Munster back to the force they were under the O'Connells and the O'Garas."

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