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Gerry Thornley: Munster still have the belief they can change the narrative

Van Graan is leaving, their games are a hard watch, but they’re still in an enviable position

What the hell to make of Munster? Their head coach, along with two of his three assistants, is leaving at the end of the season. There have even been suggestions that Johann van Graan, who will move to Bath at the end of this season, doesn’t want to be there anymore, is now a lame duck head coach and, what’s more, that he should either voluntarily move on or be shown the exit door.

Many of their games, even their wins over Castres, have been hard watches. Criticism of their bluntness abounds and it's hard to envisage their performance levels so far this season ending that decade without a trophy and breaking that glass ceiling against Europe's elite.

Yet they've lost only two games this season and went into the weekend third in Pool B of the Champions Cup after three wins out of three. They can achieve a significantly high seeding in the knockout stages if they beat Wasps on Sunday. It's a position many would envy.

First off, van Graan will not be leaving before the end of June, voluntarily or otherwise. Far from not wanting to be there, van Graan absolutely wants to see out his contract and achieve something special. Furthermore, neither the IRFU nor Munster (both of whom agreed to offer him a new two-year deal) have the inclination – or in the latter's case the money, given rumours of a €1 million cut in their budget – to buy him out of his contract.


The IRFU and Munster have not lined up a replacement for van Graan. Neither Ronan O'Gara nor Paul O'Connell will be assuming the mantle

Besides, what would it achieve? Huge, unnecessary disruption, most likely. The man is, by all accounts, a workaholic, so who is going to take up the slack? Stephen Larkham or JP Ferreira? But sure they're leaving as well, so why not move them on too?

Ian Costello calmly ran the ship when overseeing the inspirational win away to Wasps, but, having invested so much in turning the academy around, the IRFU would be loath to destabilise it now.

Furthermore, the IRFU and Munster have not lined up a replacement for van Graan. Neither Ronan O’Gara nor Paul O’Connell will be assuming the mantle, and that could be true of others on a putative shortlist.

The priority is a new head coach, and as a centrally contracted IRFU appointee, David Nucifora will drive that recruitment with input from the Professional Game Committee (PGC). The attack coach and defence coach will follow.

The process was only formalised last week and a shortlist is being devised, with plenty of contact from agents on behalf of their clients. The PGC is chaired by John Hartery, and features the CEO Ian Flanagan, the finance committee chairman Tom Kinirons and former players John Kelly, Killian Keane and Mick O'Driscoll (academy chairman).

Heavily touted

All played under Declan Kidney and his candidature has been heavily touted. Kidney remains Munster's most successful coach during his two previous spells. Munster reached four Heineken Cup finals and won two of them. He is now doing a fine job as director of rugby at London Irish. But whether or not he'd be inclined to return as a DoR, the notion of him doing so is more rooted in nostalgia than probability.

Ultimately Nucifora will have the biggest say and, a la Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt at Leinster, or indeed van Graan, it would be no surprise if the latter's successor is a relatively unknown overseas appointment.

In the interim, the only logical course of action for Munster is to let van Graan, Larkham and Ferreira give their all in honouring their contracts.

Plenty of coaches announce their intention to move on half a season out. Yes, it has led to some clubs or teams drifting toward the season's end – witness Pat Lam at Connacht and to a lesser degree Jono Gibbes at Ulster. There were a myriad other disruptive factors at work at Ulster that season, but that campaign still ended with a five-game unbeaten run to secure a Champions Cup place via a play-off.

Joe Schmidt's promotion to the Irish job didn't prevent Leinster winning a Pro12/Challenge Cup double in his final season there. Maybe his impending departure affected Ireland in 2019, but maybe it didn't. Wales knew Warren Gatland was leaving after 12 years, but it didn't stop them reaching another World Cup semi-final, where they pushed South Africa all the way.

Van Graan says he's explained his decision when to move to Bath next season; in truth, he has not. The nearest explanation was second-hand, when his good friend Victor Matfield revealed some of the contents of a conversation between the two on SuperSport television in South Africa.

“He said all the great players go to Leinster,” revealed Matfield, a comment which most likely was lost in translation and refers to Leinster’s unrivalled schools/club pathway.

Matfield also said: “He [van Graan] is almost under the director of Irish rugby [David Nucifora]. He [Nucifora] actually controls everything, understand.”

Nucifora rings all four provincial head coaches every Monday, apparently, and in addition van Graan also answers to the PGC, the group of influential financial backers known as the “1014” group and Flanagan.


Arguably, Matfield’s most revealing insight into van Graan was relaying the latter’s lament about Munster’s relative lack of power in the tight five.

“For him, his pack is very important; his tight five. So, he brought in RG Snyman, he brought in [Jason] Jenkins – both of them out [injured]. So, there’s two big South African guys that he thought were going to give him that power game, especially the way he wants to play, not there. So, he’s not getting that go-forward from that tight five that he was thinking he would get.”

Munster's work rate and character remains undimmed, as evidenced by that 14-man comeback win over Ulster – through two fine tries – and win in Castres

That power game yielded their early-season run of bonus point wins, before a youngish side which went to the Scarlets broke out of those shackles, as did that one-off amalgam of Test players and academy debutants in that rollercoaster bonus point win away to Wasps. Admittedly, in a disrupted campaign, van Graan has had to continually reshuffle since the November hiatus and South African trip left them without a match for seven weeks. They've also since lost Joey Carbery and Damian de Allende to injury.

Munster’s work rate and character remains undimmed, as evidenced by that 14-man comeback win over Ulster – through two fine tries – and win in Castres.

But the performances against Castres were a far cry from the brand displayed by Ireland and their three provincial rivals, all of whom recorded attacking bonus points last weekend.

There was positive intent and a desire to keep the ball alive (sometimes too much so in the opposition 22, admitted Larkham). But when Rory Scannell made a couple of half-breaks he had no offloading or passing options.

They were ultimately indebted to a 78th-minute close-range finish by Gavin Coombes, albeit the English champions Harlequins were also hard-pressed to win in Castres.

Yet Munster were fortunate that, true to type, Castres fielded weakened sides in both meetings. Last weekend, they didn’t play any of the tight five that had been unchanged for the preceding three Top 14 wins, nor either of their Fijian gamebreakers, Josaia Raisuqe and centre Vilimoni Botitu.

Outside noise

What van Graan describes, rather dismissively, as outside noise is largely true, albeit with social media highlighting and supplementing the criticisms in newspapers, radio, television and online; no squad can insulate themselves fully from it.

"I understand that," Andrew Conway says of the criticisms. "I know there's this narrative about the way we play and the coaching staff, there's multiple things going on. I don't have much media activity but I see it on Instagram. Even on your home page you can see this off-the-ball stuff going on and the headline is within the picture. So you can't actually get away from it unless you have no type of activity on your phone.

“I understand that we’re judged by an extremely high standard, which is what I like. I want to be judged at a high standard. With that comes criticism whenever we don’t perform to that high standard. I do think there’s a space for that, and we need to be big enough to take that on the chin but we also need to be big enough to not read into anything that’s being written by journalists or said on radio stations by some people who are coming from the right place, but in fairness some people who just want to get their names out there and want to say something which is that bit more controversial or that bit more spicy than the next fellah, so that they’re the ones getting quoted.

"That's my belief on it. Of course we want to be better. I'd never go into a game not expecting to win it, but we're three from three in Europe, we're going into a home match against Wasps to hopefully get as high a seeding as we possibly can."

Playing links

There are now only three remaining playing links with the last trophy, the Magners League success in 2011: Peter O'Mahony, Keith Earls and Stephen Archer, who was an unused sub in the final against Leinster.

“I suppose I was naive and thought that this was going to be it every year,” said Archer this week. “Unfortunately it hasn’t been and just looking over the years now, I am disappointed we haven’t got any more silverware.”

It's a phenomenal squad, definitely the most talented squad that I have been a part of while I've been here

Yet Larkham pointed to the belief within the squad this week, and Archer’s optimism that Munster can end the drought is unwavering.

“It’s a phenomenal squad, definitely the most talented squad that I have been a part of while I’ve been here. I think we have a good mix of world-class internationals, good, hungry players and established, experienced players.”

What's more, although some have described Sunday's game as a dead rubber, on the premise that Munster are already into the two-legged round of 16, it could actually prove to be season-defining. Secure a top four seeding, and Munster have the carrot of a quarter-final at Thomond Park.

That would change the narrative a little.