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Matt Williams: Johann van Graan’s reign bearing sweet fruit at Munster

His side are displaying a level of team skill that I haven’t witnessed in 25 years watching them

Munster’s rugby lacked precision, variety, skill, high tempo and competent systems when Johann van Graan arrived. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Being appointed as the head coach to lead a great club with a proud history is an uplifting, humbling and awesome experience. Being appointed as an ‘agent of change’ to reform a famous club that has not won a major trophy in a decade is also one of the toughest gigs in coaching.

I bear the scars of being nailed to that particular cross several times. At some clubs, the solution is to open the floodgates and import in a torrent of foreign players. Like a hit of caffeine, that provides a short-term lift but it does not improve the long-term quality of the players at the club.

For the national good the IRFU rightly blocks that short-sighted remedy and compels the Irish provinces to apply long-term athletic development programmes to improve their elite homegrown playing population.

There is no Lourdes water a coach can sprinkle on his players to miraculously accelerate their learning of skills, game sense and organisation culture. Developing high-performance talent takes time.


In my experience, to produce meaningful change in an organisation that can produce teams capable of lifting trophies takes 36 months. I first heard the 36-month theory for successful long-term athletic development in club rugby from three former Wallaby coaching greats – Bob Dwyer, Dave Brockhoff and Bob Templeton.

These men had coached winning teams at World Cups, Bledisloe Cups, and literally, hundreds of international, provincial and high-level Australian club matches. In three separate conversations, they all advised that meaningful change within club rugby teams, without importing vast numbers of talented players, was a three-year process.

Passion, guts, physicality and a kicking game could no longer win the <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_event">Heineken Cup</a> <br/>

Rugby is not the only sport that I have heard that timespan described as the magic number required for trophy-winning change. Over the decades that I have spoken with leading coaches in Gaelic football, rugby league, cricket, netball, basketball and hockey. Independently they all quoted that a minimum of 36 months of hard work by the entire organisation was required for meaningful cultural and performance change.

Many years ago I had a conversation with Gareth Southgate, the current England soccer manager. At that time he was starting out on his managerial journey with Middlesbrough. He told me the club had some top-quality young players coming through their system. His plan was to develop and expand that talent pipeline from within the club, much like Alex Ferguson had done with Manchester United.

His estimation of the timeline required to develop these players so they could compete at the highest level of the game was “36 months”.

Three years provides multiple experiences for the athletes to accumulate game knowledge, mental and physical strength. It allows strong relationships to forge within the group so that players can understand the acceptable behaviours that a winning team culture demands. It empowers players by providing multiple sets of deep learning experiences that come from hard work, victory and defeat. As José Mourinho says: “No one is born a professional. We all learn how to become a professional.”

When Johann van Graan was appointed as the head coach of Munster he found himself dropped into the demanding position of being a rookie coach of a famous club, with a limited supply of local talent and a community where every man, woman, child and their dog demanded that Munster win . . . NOW!

A daunting mission that had proved beyond the capabilities of Rob Penney and Tony McGahan. Rassie Erasmus could not get out of Limerick fast enough because the solutions to Munster's problems were not going to be solved in the immediate months. The answers were years away.

Four seasons ago Munster were in poor shape. Neutral observers could see that Munster's systems and prospects were bleak. Inside Munster, there was a province-wide denial of reality. The organisation was stuck in the quagmire of its past glories. Infatuated with the false bravado of Munster spirit and physical toughness. Their internal systems had stopped producing high-quality creative players so that, horror of horrors, they were forced to import talent from Leinster and Ulster.

As players spawned from Blackrock, St Andrew's and Campbell Colleges ran out onto Thomond wearing Munster jerseys, the Red Army consoled themselves by saying "It's okay. His great grandmother's aunt by marriage is from Clare. He's really one of us."

Munster have always had a powerful culture, with a physicality that would break most teams, but after the great generations of the early 2000s that game plan could no longer win big games on the big days. Rugby in Europe had changed. Passion, guts, physicality and a kicking game could no longer win the Heineken Cup.

Munster kept talking about spirit and the team’s link with the people, which is undoubtedly true, but their rugby was a dinosaur. Having passionate supporters who love their team is wonderful, but it’s not a game plan. Drowning in an ocean of their own false mythology, Munster’s rugby lacked precision, variety, skill, high tempo and competent systems.

Enter coach Van Graan.

From day one he attempted to lead Munster down a new path, into the domain of a skilful, fast, 15-man running game. I can only imagine how daunting this concept must have been for a rookie coach. Van Graan started with a plan and as Mike Tyson famously said: "He got punched." The particular path Van Graan chose was a dead end. Every coach makes errors and Van Graan, like all coaches, has made his share.

The path may have been wrong but his vision was correct. Munster had to change from their headbanging, 'tough as woodpecker's lips' style of rugby because it was never going to defeat clubs like Toulouse, Racing 92, Saracens or Leinster. That is not an opinion, it is an historical fact.

Munster required vast reform that would maintain their tough heritage, with buckets of skills, systems and technique poured on top. At a club where pride is a foundation stone, to admit that major change was required was to admit past failure. That is not a word encouraged around the famous red jersey. *

So here we are a month into coach Van Graan’s fourth year at Munster and the 36-month theory appears to be holding. Munster are more than winning games. They are displaying a level of team skill that I have never witnessed from the club in 25 years of watching them perform.

Last weekend against the Scarlets, Munster made a statement, straight out of Leinster’s cultural playbook. Under the heading that says ‘trust your young players – they are your next generation of winners’ Munster sent out a bunch of generation next, mixed with a few grizzled old warriors. At what was once one of club rugby’s most daunting away venues, they ripped the once feared Scarlet jerseys to shreds and in the process validated all of Van Graan’s processes. For a coach there is nothing sweeter.

Van Graan has enhanced Munster’s ancient woodpecker lips DNA with structures, skills and processes that can win on the biggest stage. He deserves not only credit, he deserves support and praise. He has been resolute, brave and determined. Munster are on track.

The others in Munster who deserve praise are those administrators who for three years have supported a young, unproven coach and provided him with the time to develop his plans, staff and players. They have done Munster a great service.

Foolishly, Middlesbrough did not do the same with Gareth Southgate.

Munster may not lift a trophy this year, but when they do (and it will be soon) the club will need to thank Johann van Graan for laying down the foundations for their next generation of success.

* This article was edited on Friday, October 22nd, 2021