Van Graan and Munster braced for fresh challenges
Carbery’s absence a major blow as proud South African plots European campaign
Munster head coach Johann van Graan with new forwards coach Graham Rowntree. “We have big dreams for the squad,” said van Graan. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Johann van Graan visibly warms to the conversation veering into Munster results at Exeter and Gloucester last season. Then, like so many exiled souls, he chokes up remembering the glorious rise of his beloved Springboks.
All this occurred during a 24-minute interview at Wednesday’s Champions Cup launch in Cardiff. Add the glumness of Johnny Sexton and Chris Robshaw tearing into the financial antics of Saracens and, well, the reporters had the quotes equivalent of a gold rush.
The young Munster coach came last but he was by no means the least interesting. The highly attritional 10-all draw with Exeter in Sandy Park, 13 long months ago, and Joey Carbery’s dismantling of Gloucester in Kingsholm last January are the high water marks van Graan hopes can become the norm.
Such performances, with their blend of grit and skill, promised so much but ultimately Munster perished on the same rock that could undo them in 2020; defeat to Saracens with their key man unavailable.
“Joey is one of our star players,” said van Graan before refusing to comment on Carbery’s time in Ireland camp [we mention this because the issue came up unprompted]. “He is under our watch now so we got to look after him.”
The protean 24-year-old is injured, yet again, so any debate about who should wear the Ireland 10 jersey, Joey or Johnny, is abruptly silenced. As much as Carbery’s gammy ankle dampened Irish chances of success at the World Cup, it could derail Munster’s campaign.
The merits of Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan are constantly extolled by van Graan but if either outhalf had taken the step up to Test match standards the province would not have poached Carbery from Leinster in the first place.
“We have big dreams for the squad,” said van Graan in reference to this duo’s probable arrival next summer.
De Allende almost single-handedly beat Wales in the World Cup semi-final while Snyman looks like an ‘engineer’ from Ridley Scott’s Alien sequel Prometheus.
The lure of Japanese Yen means neither World Cup winner can solve the Munster equation until 2021.
“Actually I was in Cardiff,” began van Graan when asked to recall the coronation of the Springboks, with whom the 39-year-old worked as a technical expert under two separate coaches from 2012 to 2017.
“When I left the Springboks, it was after the French game in 2017. I left with a heavy heart because it was such an incredible group of people. I always said when I leave South Africa I want to leave on a good footing because at some stage I do want to go back but there was a massive opportunity at Munster. I went towards something.
“So, I have been in contact with most of those lads for the last two years because, like I said to the guys I am currently coaching, I am not in it for fame or ego. You want to make a difference. Hopefully some day when I leave Munster I will have made a massive difference here.
“To me it is more about the people. I have said that from day one.
“Some of the individuals, I’ll use somebody like Eben [Etzebeth], in 2012 against the English in Durban was the first Test that he played. It was my first Test as well and I went on for 74 [as assistant coach] and he has gone on to achieve amazing things, and to see the man he has become...”
Etzebeth is an interesting example but van Graan clearly has no issue with the looming equality court case where the 28-year-old is accused of allegedly using racial slurs during a physical altercation outside a Langebaan bar in the Western Cape on August 25th. Etzebeth denies any wrongdoing.
“Siya [Kolisi], to see where he came from, he was a young gun in 2012, he got selected in 2013 and I was with him when he ran onto the field when Arno Botha tore his ACL,” van Graan continued. “I just told him ‘Siya, this is just another game, do what you always do’.
“Now, six years later he is the World Cup-winning captain. It’s incredible what he has done. And he is a family man.
“I have a few special guys on that team. Francois Louw I have coached before and Duane Vermeulen. Handré Pollard is an incredible human being the way he has come through.”
Once it got to the final, after two minutes, it was clear South Africa would win
Van Graan paid further tribute to several of Rassie Erasmus’s backroom team, including Felix Jones, before an emotional explanation of what this success means to South Africa as a country.
“What I experienced I’ll try and explain it the Munster way. What I experienced in this community – pride, passion belief, respect – and that’s why I came to Munster, because I am a South African and associate with those words.
“But to see the difference it makes in people’s lives is incredible.”
Set piece dominance
For now Munster can only “dream” of playing and winning the Springbok way. The arrival of de Allende and Snyman would allow van Graan to put into practice the set piece pressure game that wiped out a Saracens-heavy English pack in Yokohama.
“I thought through the World Cup England were the best team but once it got to the final, after two minutes, it was clear South Africa would win,” he stated. “You can’t defeat set piece dominance. The scrums. I think it was on 43 minutes that Beastie [Tendai Mtawarira] and Francie [Malherbe] went off and on came Kitsi [Steven Kitshoff] and Vincent [Koch], two tanks, and that first scrum they dominated England straight away.
“Literally, every maul and scrum you were just waiting for a penalty. It is very difficult to defend and the way Jacques [Nienaber] had structured the defence, so incredibly well, once you are playing catch up the more you want to play the more you get suffocated.
“The two tries made it 32-12,” added van Graan beaming with pride. “Game over.”
Saracens, despite the financial sanctions threatening their status in the English Premiership, can put their usual focus into retaining the Champions Cup. Munster must contend with them back to back in December. Carbery will not feature while Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis, Koch and Owen Farrell are all expected to return.
How Munster attempt to figure Saracens out – if it is even possible – will provide the ideal status report of the van Graan era.
They have not been idle since cutting ties with Jerry Flannery and Jones, choosing to embrace the professional reality of modern rugby over a core value of promoting from inside the community.
It’s hard to argue against Stephen Larkham as attack coach, one of the greatest ever 10s to play the game, and Graham Rowntree, a two-tour Lions scrum coach, only making them a better team.
So, starting with Ulster this evening, Munster’s coming challenges provide the latest acid test for Irish rugby, and one final opportunity to end a miserable 2019 with an upward turn in fortunes.