Johann van Graan welcomed his family off the plane from South Africa on Thursday and then sat down to pick his first team in 15 years as he settled into a new life as a professional head coach at Munster.
There may be question marks about his lack of experience as the main man, and the former Springboks forwards coach is acutely aware as he prepares to take charge of his Munster selection for the first time in Cork against Ospreys this evening that his appointment to the province as successor to compatriot Rassie Erasmus has placed something of a target on his back at which the naysayers can take aim.
Yet the 37-year-old radiates the sort of bullet-proof confidence that suggests that this is, for him, not a make or break point in his coaching career, merely the next step up on the ladder.
The bottom rung was negotiated back in 2002, when a 22-year-old van Graan, not content to spend a decade as a journeyman player, first dipped his toes into coaching in Pretoria at his alma mater, Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Afrikaans Boys’ High School) also known as Affies, where future Springbok Pierre Spies and cricket superstar AB de Villiers were among his players.
The trajectory since has been well documented in his native South Africa and only recently revealed to an Irish rugby public sent scurrying to the Google homepage when van Graan was revealed as the frontrunner to be Munster’s fourth boss since Tony McGahan departed at the end of the 2012 campaign.
First came stints with the Bulls organisation as a video analyst, then onto forwards coach and Super Rugby titles under the mentorship of Heyneke Meyer before the Springboks came calling in 2012. Yet never the top job.
“It’s public knowledge that I haven’t been a head coach since 2002,” van Graan said this week.
“You know if it doesn’t go well people will say ‘well that’s his first head coach job’. I say you’ve got to start somewhere.
“For every new beginning in life, you have got to fly on your own.
“I’m embracing it and obviously the people that appointed me saw something in me that they liked and hopefully I can repay that faith.
“In my eyes, it’s not about me it’s always about the team.”
The added burdens now on his shoulders as a head coach were brought into sharp focus this week as reports of a hiccup in the contract negotiations of club captain Peter O’Mahony were revealed on the morning of his first press conference at Munster’s High Performance Centre on the UL campus in Limerick last Tuesday.
It will take some adjustment to his previous life as a unit-specific coach but, again, van Graan is relishing the challenge and willing to lean on his assistant coaches Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones and temporary consultants such as Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell, who was involved for two days at the start of the week, as he finds his feet in both the league and European competition over the coming weeks.
“I think the most important thing is you’ve got to have good people around you. Jerry (Flannery) and Felix (Jones) are brilliant at what they are doing. Andy coming in this week lessens a bit of the load and hopefully we’ll have a defence coach in pretty soon.
“I believe, analytically, that’s a strength of mine but also in previous teams that I’ve been involved with, I like to keep in the background the big pictures. That’s also a strength of mine that I believe can add value.
“Inclusiveness, I like to get opinions but at the end of the day I’ll make the decision based on the vision of the club, the vision of the team and what my beliefs are. At the end of the day it’s an opportunity. It’s different from my previous roles but I believe I’ll find the right balance sooner than later.
“I definitely don’t have all the answers, I don’t think any coach in the world has all the answers, I don’t care not to use all the expertise that is available to me to get the results.
“The team is in a very good space mentally, I think... they are very settled in terms of the leadership group, we’ve been planning for this (transition) for quite a while.
“I wasn’t here but all the information was available to me and from last Sunday night we’ve put in place what we want to achieve over the next nine weeks up until January 22 and we’ll just take it day by day.
“The Ospreys one is pretty important for us in terms of the table and we will give them the respect they deserve first. We’ve got to finish that first on Saturday and then our attention will turn to Europe on Sunday.”
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