By Simon Lewis
Munster’s search for a new director of rugby has taken another twist after present incumbent Rassie Erasmus cast doubts on the province’s chances of getting their reported top target.
With the search to replace Erasmus, who is returning to South Africa to become his home union’s director of rugby, having narrowed to one chosen target, according to IRFU performance director David Nucifora last week, reports have suggested current Springbok forwards and attack coach Johann van Graan is the man in Munster’s sights.
Van Graan’s name emerged a day after fellow South African and the former head coach of the now- disbanded Western Force Dave Wessels apparently spurned Munster in favour of staying in Super Rugby with the Melbourne Rebels.
Yet if courting the out-of-work Wessels proved beyond Munster and the IRFU, luring a man under contract to the SARU will be more complicated.
That was a point emphasised by both Erasmus on Saturday following his side’s bonus-point win over Cardiff Blues, and Springboks head coach Allister Coetzee, who reacted with anger at the suggestion he was about to lose a key figure in his management set-up.
Hours after Munster’s 39-16 win at Thomond Park, Coetzee was speaking following his side’s 27-27 draw with Rugby Championship rivals Australia in Bloemfontein.
Responding to a question about van Graan’s reported move to Ireland, an annoyed Coetzee said: “Have you seen his contract? Has he signed anything? How can it be official? Has SA Rugby said something? There is nothing official.
“I don’t want to talk about Johann van Graan,” he added. “Johann van Graan has got no signed contract (with Munster). He’s a contracted assistant coach to SA Rugby and those are the facts.”
That Erasmus is expected to leave for South Africa and a post in effective charge of Coetzee as soon as his Munster replacement is secured adds another layer of complexity to the situation. Speaking as the Bloemfontein test was kicking off, Erasmus was admitting he would like van Graan to remain in the Springbok set-up and he would be surprised if the SARU were to release their highly-rated coach to join his current employers.
“Yes, I would be surprised,” he said. “Just because he is quality and he knows the system and everyone and the players really well. Coaching against him when he was at the Bulls was really tough. We struggled to win games because he has got such knowledge across all the different disciplines from lineouts to attack to defence.
“He’s a really sharp guy who eats, sleeps, and drinks rugby so I’m not sure if South Africa will release him.”
If Erasmus was already in situ at SARU, he would want van Graan in-house he said, “without a doubt”.
“Whenever (Munster) have asked me about a candidate, my only involvement is, they ask me, do I know the guy, and what I think of him. I’m not in the mix at all, that’s why I don’t know who the next guy is.
“But I can tell you, just like I vouched for Dave Wessels last time, his work ethic, knowledge, character, he’s a guy that’s been involved with teams and won two or three Super Rugby titles, he has been with the Springboks for six or seven years.
“That’s why I am saying it will be interesting (to see) if the Springboks let him go, if it is him. I can’t talk enough about this guy’s work ethic and knowledge of the game.
“He is someone that I would like to work with, with the Springboks. I’m not working there yet and to be honest with you, I don’t even have contact with the guys who are currently there because they are in the middle of the Rugby Championship and then they are going on their European tour. I’m not involved at all at this stage.”
Erasmus recognised keeping van Graan (36) in South Africa would be counter-productive if he wanted to take his first top job at Munster.
“Look, like what Munster are doing for me and giving me the opportunity to go back and work at that level — if a person’s dream is to come to Munster and become a head coach, which is a fantastic job and it’s a job where it maybe takes you to the next level.
“If that’s something that will make the club better and that person better, it would be stupid to stand in his way because he’s a young guy.
“In that regard I understand it but I also understand the big role he plays in the Springbok set-up.
“Luckily, it’s not my decision because I wouldn’t know what to do.”
This story first appeared in today's Irish Examiner.