Van Graan’s holistic approach already paying rich dividends at Munster

South African’s strong bond with outhalf Joey Carbery shows key mentoring skills

The close relationship between Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton has been well documented. While rugby is the dominating reference point for their sit downs over a coffee or two, it clearly transcends work. To this can now be added the coach/outhalf bond between Johann van Graan and Joey Carbery.

Van Grann spent the weekend of Ireland's Six Nations game against Scotland in Edinburgh, for what was Carbery's last outing when setting up the match-winning try for Keith Earls. Shortly after the full-time whistle, there was a poignant moment when the two men embraced on the Murrayfield sidelines.

Not long afterwards, Carbery said: “I get on really well with Johann and I think he’s a great guy apart from rugby and I think he’s a great coach as well. But to have someone there who’s a bit of a mentor and someone who you can always go to with anything is great. And it was great to see him after the game.”

Insomuch as the relatively guarded Carbery reveals of himself in the post-match mixed zone, there was no disguising the close relationship they have quickly developed and strengthened in his first season with Munster.


Although Van Graan plays down his role in Carbery’s decision to switch from Leinster to Munster, it is clear he played a significant part in that process.

In confirming his decision in May of last year before Ireland’s tour to Australia, Carbery admitted: “I met up with him [Van Graan] and he’s a really good guy. I felt like I connected with him and he seemed like a really honest guy, which I like; someone I can go to, especially if I’m living away.

“I’m going to need someone who’s a good adviser, who I can trust and just have chats to even not regarding rugby. I felt like he could definitely be that person I could talk to. So, I really liked him.”

For all the debate about Carbery’s move, that his form has flourished can also be attributed to the relationship van Graan has built with the 23-year-old out-half. Van Graan has often mentioned the other four out-halves on Munster’s books, recently reduced to four by Ian Keatley’s move to promotion-chasing London Irish, but has invested heavily in Carbery from the outset and remained strongly loyal to him, especially after Carbery missed three penalties in the 13-12 round round four loss at Castres.

“There is a big spotlight on every ‘10’ in a game of rugby and especially when he is your goal-kicker. He said he is disappointed, he is going to work on it. That’s sport. As a team, we win together and we lose together. It’s not only the goal-kicker, only a ‘10’ or only one individual.”

One can only imagine how much Van Graan backed his ‘10’ in private, and since then Carbery has landed 22 kicks in succession for Munster.

So it was that Carbery this week signed a two-year extension with Munster, keeping him at the province until at least 2022 and thus effectively committing himself indefinitely to his new province and, most probably, ruling out a return to Leinster one day.

Van Graan clearly places great stock in developing strong relationships with key team leaders and, similarly, this has probably contributed to Peter O’Mahony producing one of his best seasons yet for Munster as both captain and standard bearer.

An honest, two-way exchange of information between coaches and team leaders is mutually beneficial when it comes to analysing performances, training sessions and gameplans, and in all of this Van Graan also challenges his senior players to play better.

But this has always been Van Graan’s way. He’s not just issuing soundbites when revealing, as he did last Monday in reference to the Munster contingent returning from that Six Nations finale in Cardiff, “we coaches speak to our players, and we as humans can never communicate enough.”

Although Van Graan did not play at a high level he’s been steeped in rugby since birth. The son of Barend van Graan, the long-serving CEO of the Blue Bulls Rugby Union, from his early days as a ball-boy at Loftus Versfeld, kicking the ball back to the likes of Naas Botha, Van Graan has always had an obsession with the game, which mushroomed into a devotion to analysis and studying the game.

Although only 37 when taking up his first head coaching role at Munster, it’s worth noting that he had been coaching for over 15 years, having started as a technical adviser for the Blue Bulls in 2004. He initially worked with their Vodacom Cup team, before moving into the same role with their Currie Cup teamand the Bulls’ Super Rugby team.

He moved into a role as the team's forwards and attack coach, helping the Bulls win three Super 14 titles under head coach Heyneke Meyer, in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Meyer has described Van Graan as his “best appointment” and brought him aboard the Springboks coaching set-up in 2012 as a technical adviser, a role which morphed into forwards coach with an input into South Africa’s attacking game.

As well as his slavish work ethic and attention to detail, Van Graan has always demonstrated an ability to build particularly close relationships with players.

Victor Matfield always hailed Van Graan's lineout work, and the two were often seen at Trademarx sharing a coffee discussing the lineout tactics of an opposition team. Van Graan has also been a groomsman at the weddings of several Springboks players, namely Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez and Deon Stegmann, as well as those of Western Force lock Wilhelm Steenkamp and Bulls midfielder JP Nel.

When news of Van Graan’s departure to Munster was confirmed, the Boks lock Eben Etzeberth was moved to say: “From a professional point of view, Johann is an unbelievable coach. Very detailed and dedicated. He is an even better person. I have been working with him for the past six years and we clicked immediately. For his primary job, he is massively knowledgeable.

“Off the field, he is an amazing person. It is a pity we are going to lose him. One of his biggest strengths is that you really want to play for him. You don’t want to let him down because he invests so much of himself in you. He really puts his heart on his sleeve for the team.”

Such are the hours Van Graan spends watching rugby videos that his wife Melissa joked: “Luckily I love sport as well, and I remember when I met him, he spent nights forwarding and rewinding videos, making notes of what players were doing. Evenings went by while he did this. Luckily now technology makes it easier, but he loves his work.

“He’s a giver, who doesn’t expect much back,” she added. “It is very important for him to make a difference in people’s lives. The guys in the team – a number of them – see him as a mentor, especially for the young guys. He has a love of life, and is someone who can always can be positive. Even when you’re down he’ll do something to pick you up.”

None of this comes as a surprise. Van Graan is very polite, and even with journalists he has a ready handshake. He looks people in the eyes and is clearly a genuinely engaging and warm person. You’d wonder, if anything, whether he’s maybe not ruthless enough.

Yet it’s easy to forget that this is still his first full season as a head coach, and that when Van Graan took over from Rassie Erasmus midway through last season, there were plenty who believed the transition would prove doomed.

To assume the role showed self-confidence in his own coaching abilities in the first place, and, in the event, he didn't rip up Munster's playbook. Instead he restricted his influence to a few tweaks as they reached another two semi-finals, before – helped by the arrival of Carbery, Chris Farrell and Tadhg Beirne – seeking to develop Munster's game more this season.

Van Graan enjoyed some real success with the Bulls and the Springboks, which was in large part founded on a structured South African game revolving around mauling, kicking and direct running. But despite a background largely as a forwards coach, he has impressed Munster players and coaches with his wider knowledge of the game and hands-on coaching skills as well as his ability to delegate, micro manage and build relationships.

He has sought to add to Munster’s game while maintaining traditional virtues and strengths. He has placed a big focus on Munster’s work-rate off the ball, striving to make them fitter as well as staying more alert mentally, and thus be more equipped to go up a gear when forcing, or conceding, a turnover.

They are less likely to be out-run and out-numbered in kick-chase duels, defensively they scramble in numbers better and offensively also support a break in greater numbers.

So it’s been that in the particularly demanding, energy-sapping games against Exeter and Leinster, home and away, Munster have matched their opponents for work-rate where they mightn’t have before.

Helped by the arrival of Carbery in particular, Munster’s attacking game has been noticeably more unpredictable, and less easy to defend against, which was abundantly evident in the win away to Gloucester.

Van Graan himself has long since bought into the Munster zeitgeist. He gets them. The emotional energy they bring to their work, and the umbilical bond between players and supporters, doubtless appeals to him hugely.

He has become a little emotional himself after some of their more epic wins, and Carbery’s new deal strongly suggests that like the outhalf, the coach is also committed to Munster indefinitely. This relationship could run and run yet.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times