Jean de Villiers gives seal of approval to new Munster man van Graan
Springbok legend would ‘love to see’ likes of O’Connell and O’Gara on province’s ticket
The solution to an immediate Munster problem seems so obvious when uttered by a Springbok captain. Of course Jean de Villiers is much more than that. A Munster centre for the 2009/10 season, he found delight on a damp Wednesday checking out stately new facilities at the University of Limerick.
De Villiers looked up friends, and paid tribute to the departed.
Johann van Graan gets the seal of approval but the average age of Munster’s coaching ticket has suddenly plunged to just 35.
“An old wise head is never a bad thing but Fla and Felix understand the culture and are always learning as coaches,” he says. “But you’d love to see a Paul O’Connell...”
He’s in there quietly working away.
“And Rog maybe one day...”
De Villiers’ logic can be a clarion call. Imagine Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell becoming the Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan of Munster’s boot room, or Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans.
“It’s all set up in the right way with Rog being at Racing, having almost five years of experience there now. You’d love to see the old heads come back and contribute.”
The dream ticket is close at hand should van Graan want or need them.
Rugby proved cruel and kind to this retired 36-year-old. Capped 109 times, vicious injuries snatched the 2003 and 2007 World Cups from his grasp, a snapped knee against Wales in 2014 led to a miraculous recovery when he made the 2015 tournament (only to break his jaw against Samoa at Villa Park).
Proof of his living legend status in South Africa came as a little gift last Tuesday in the Radisson hotel. De Villiers was chatting away when Springboks trickled past after their morning session in Donnybrook. Each freakishly shaped unit stalled for a hug, joy slashed across lumpy brows. Into Afrikaans, English, a mixture of everything, they jostled between laughter and reverence depending on their age.
South Africa’s latest blonde hair, blue eye television personality - see him pitch side Saturday - de Villiers seems able for civilian life. The Times and Indo are talking with the capo so, for a brief moment, we become goodfellas to these guys. Every one of them offers their Christian name with a warm handshake. Eben Etzebeth proves a ferocious yet disarming specimen.
The super star hooker Ireland will know all about seems star struck so de Villiers initiates contact. As the blockish frame of Malcolm Marx rolls on Springbok royalty gasps.
“Jeez, that’s a big boy. He’s only 23.”
We presume, correctly, Van Graan asked him about his season playing at Thomond Park.
“It’s a big challenge for Johann. First head coaching job. He’s built up a lot of experience from the Bulls, coaching since he was 22, and working with 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 my last four years 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 a head coach is the last guy to make all decisions, to decide on the strategy, the plan, recruitment, all of that, so there is a responsibility. He is a very talented coach.
“Most importantly, he understands the Munster culture. He has done his research, he understands what the club stands for, and that goes a long way.
“Yeah, I have spoken to him. You don’t just walk into Munster and expect everything to change...the hand over from Rassie and Jaques helps a lot.”
De Villiers smiles.
“Doing your job for you.”
“Ah, doing media!” Siyi Kolisi giggles. “When did you get here?”
“Couple hours ago,” he nods at the Super Sport crew, “we are staying here.”
“Is it,” goes the Stormers flanker, turning to the little people, “Howzit?”
“Might go to Limerick tomorrow.”
A confused Kolisi expects a rhyme.
“Where Munster play.”
Back to van Graan.
“Munster is an easy sell for me, for any coach, for any player...”
The centres arrive with a bulging Jesse Kriel unable to disguise his delight. Damian de Allende sneaks up from behind.
“Hi, I’m Jesse.”
“Hi, I’m Pieter...”
Pieter-Steph du Toit blots out the sun. An old Bok leans on the table and murmurs, “Hey, I’m Chiliboy.”
Haze of Afrikaans.
“Sorry guys, what were you saying?”
“Rassie and Jacques have 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 be within the squad and how do you facilitate that?
“I worked very closely with them for a very long time and know the value they can add. Certainly a big loss for Munster. The club needs continuity now. Hopefully Johann can stay there three to five years and they can get back to the force they were under the O’Connell’s and O’Gara’s.”