These are tricky times for Munster, the European drama kings

Johann van Graan’s departure will leave province in need of a new coaching ticket

Munster sure know how to hog the headlines, especially when the Champions Cup comes around. No sooner had they completed the most taxing build-up conceivable to their opening game against Wasps and backed it up with an inspirational win in unique circumstances when, less than 48 hours later, they announced their head coach was leaving at the end of the season.

Even by the standards of the Drama Kings, you couldn’t make it up.

But, as much as anything, the past week underlines that the role of being the Munster head coach is many faceted. It’s undoubtedly a huge job, which tugs at the heart strings and can be incredibly rewarding, but it is also highly demanding, from several directions.

Johann van Graan's decision to invoke an escape clause in a new two-year contract he signed last July and serve six months notice to the IRFU that he was leaving Munster compounds the departure of Stephen Larkham.

Tellingly, van Graan twice turned down the opportunity to say he was happy with the support he was receiving behind the scenes when facing the media on Wednesday.

The Munster head coach has many people to answer to, be it David Nucifora and the IRFU, who are his de facto employers, the Munster CEO, the Munster board, the Munster Professional Game Committee and private backers such as the 1014 group of businessmen who are understood to have part funded the acquisition of RG Snyman and Damian de Allende.

In his long tenure as Munster CEO one of Garrett Fitzgerald’s skills was the way he somehow pulled all these strands together and made it work, how he could deal independently with all these stakeholders and make them believe they had a say in how Munster was run, while he was the one mostly doing so.

One of the great sadnesses of his passing was that, more than many of us, he had truly earned a long retirement more than most.

Then there’s the clubs, on whom the Munster golden era in the 2000s was largely founded. Last Sunday, Munster delved deeply into the young players in the Academy and their pathway – most of whom had been able to rise to the occasion in Coventry in large part because they had been playing regularly in the AIL.

Yet almost all in the club game feel Munster have little connectivity with them, and that extends to van Graan, who seems not to have seen the sky over an AIL ground in his time with Munster.

Connection

Last Sunday will at least have revived that connection a tad, if only temporarily, and it has also had a galvanising effect on the support base, who also have a stake in Munster rugby.

Van Graan is a decent, honest man who appears to be liked by the players, especially on a personal basis among some, and they also have huge respect for the popular Larkham.

Yet compared to the revered Rassie Erasmus, there doesn't appear to be the same gnashing of teeth among the fan base over van Graan's departure.

Erasmus steered the Munster ship through very choppy waters following the passing of Anthony Foley in October 2016 with a classiness that he hasn’t always retained since. He also proved himself a magnificent motivator and in tandem with his trusted and brilliant lieutenant Jacques Nienaber, helped the players to surf an emotional wave which also swept up the Munster supporters in winning 15 of their next 16 matches.

Playing a restrictive brand of rugby based on the classic South African pillars of good set-pieces, strong defence and a clever kicking strategy, Erasmus guided Munster to a European semi-final – where they were outmuscled by Saracens – and a Pro14 final also at the Aviva, where the Scarlets ran them ragged.

All the while Erasmus was continually linked with a return to South Africa. In February 2017, he has said flatly: “When that happens there is always a lot of speculation around different coaches. I am definitely not in the mix there.”

Speaking after Munster’s defeat to Saracens in late April, Erasmus went further, when asked was he staying with Munster for the next few years?

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” he said.

You’re definitely staying, Rassie?

“Yes.”

So that can end the speculation?

“I’ve never been speculating about this!”

Yet after Erasmus’ return to South Africa along with Nienaber was confirmed in June of that year, the IRFU CEO Philip Browne confirmed that Erasmus had invoked Munster release clause the previous spring.

As a result, he left Munster halfway through the second season, 2017-18, of a three-year deal, and there is a feeling within the province’s hierarchy that Erasmus had been of a mind to do that from the outset once the Springboks came calling.

Last week Billy Holland spoke of how Larkham helped him and the other forwards improve their catch-and-pass skills.

Adding in the first ten games under his watch in the 2017-18 season, Erasmus departed with a 78.5 per cent win ratio (compared to 57 per cent under Foley the season before) while reaching those two semi-finals.

Under van Graan, Munster have consistently achieved similar results.

There were two Champions’ Cup semi-finals in the first two seasons, losing to Racing and eventual champions Saracens again, before a pool exit and then a 40-33 defeat in the round of 16 by eventual champions Toulouse last season.

In the Pro14 there have been three semi-finals and a final, all ending in defeats by eventual champions Leinster. The win ratio dipped initially, but since the start of last season it has been just above 80 per cent.

Solid not spectacular

So his tenure has been solid without being spectacular, but it appears van Graan is well regarded among the various strands within the Munster organisation, less so on the outside among former players and supporters who were feted with previous successes and now draw less favourable comparisons with Leinster.

The voluntary departure of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones were in part because of the missteps by van Graan and the Munster hierarchy, although to his and their credit they brought in Graham Rowntree and Larkham. Rowntree has overseen strong set-pieces and mauls as well as breakdown work, and has given every indication he is staying, which will be popularly received.

There have also been distinct signs of Larkham’s influence being brought to bear, be it that draw with Racing or comeback win away to Clermont especially, even in the defeat by Toulouse.

Last week Billy Holland spoke of how Larkham helped him and the other forwards improve their catch-and-pass skills. A young, remodelled Munster team played with noticeable heads-up freedom in putting the Scarlets to the sword, and last Sunday's amalgam of Test match animals and academy debutants showed an ability to interlink between forwards and backs, as Larkham has preached.

Yet along the way there was also that limp defeat to Leinster in the Pro14 final at the RDS when Munster played with so little ambition, and more recently that restricted, desultory defeat away to the Ospreys.

Larkham had also wanted to stay, but his reasons for leaving are clearly more personal. These are difficult Covid times to be based on the other side of the world from home and extended family, and the lure of the Brumbies head job was too hard to resist. Van Graan’s departure only compounds Larkham’s loss, for the gilded Aussie would have been a natural fit as Munster’s new head coach.

In contrast to Erasmus, van Graan has at least stayed five seasons and given Munster six months to find a replacement in time for the start of a new season.

But, with the next man in mind, there appear to be several different stakeholders and not all necessarily pulling in the same direction.

As well as the CEO Ian Flanagan and the Munster board, there’s the private backers and the Professional Game Committee. This had been chaired for several years until Alan Miller stood down four months ago, with John Hartery appointed in a temporary capacity, so that group is in a state of chasis.

Kingmaker

But above all them is the ultimate kingmaker, the IRFU’s David Nucifora. Whereas the assistant coaches are appointed, and paid, by the provinces, the head coaches are employed by the Union – a curious differential. So while the various strands of Munster’s hierarchy will have an input, Nucifora will have the final say.

Munster also need a new attack coach and, potentially, a new defence coach.

Last Thursday, he flew back to Australia for his annual Christmas/New Year, mid-season break in, most likely, a darkened mood, given two headaches he did not want. Firstly, the letter from 62 current and former Irish women’s players along with a Governmental rap on the knuckles for the Union’s intemperate response under his watch. And secondly, helping Munster find a new head coach.

Nucifora has done well with Dan McFarland and Andy Friend. But he and Munster could come up with a shortlist of six, be it Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Mike Prendergast, Scott Robertson, Jason Holland and whoever else, and discover that none of them are available for one reason or another.

Munster also need a new attack coach and, potentially, a new defence coach. A fresh start yes, but it’s a tricky process.

All the while, the players prepare to take on more change while keeping their focus on the remainder of this season. These are tricky times for Munster.