IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora backed Johann van Graan as the right man to take Munster forward and pledged to surround the head coach with experience and support in the province’s new-look backroom staff.
Munster are still reeling from the second season in succession that has ended in European and Guinness PRO14 semi-final defeats while also searching for new assistant coaches following the rejection of new contract offers by forwards coach Jerry Flannery and backline and attack coach Felix Jones.
Former South Africa assistant and first-time head coach van Graan was already seeking to restore Munster’s coaching complement to five with a more experienced figure but now needs to fill three vacancies. Nucifora’s mission, outlined yesterday, is to find the right coaches to help van Graan take Munster “to that next level, to winning competitions”.
“I’d be a great believer that the answers lie in making the players you’ve got better first and that’s only going to come from the quality of the coaches. They will make the team better,” Nucifora said during an end-of season media briefing at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Former British & Irish Lions coaches Rob Howley, the Wales attack coach, and Graham Rowntree, a former England forwards coach alongside Andy Farrell and under Stuart Lancaster, have been linked with moves to Munster, as has Australian former Wallabies backs coach Stephen Larkham, and all three would fit the bill in terms of experience, the inference possibly being that van Graan is in need of a senior partner in much the same way Leinster hired Stuart Lancaster to take the pressure off Leo Cullen.
Van Graan, 38, was last month handed a contract extension to his initial two and a half-year term signed with the IRFU that started in November 2017 which will keep him in Limerick to June 2022, and amid criticism that Munster lacked both a cutting edge in attack and the power to mix it with Europe’s elite, Nucifora was asked whether the South African was still the right man for the job.
“Yes, absolutely,” he replied.
"It’s important that the team of coaches gel and work well together and not every head coach has all the skills in every area and you’ve got to understand what you need to complement that particular person and he brings some terrific skills to the table, Johann. What we’ve to make sure if that we’re filling the gaps and complement his skillset with the right coaches.
“One coach doesn’t coach everything so now, with the boys leaving, we’re going to need someone who’s going to be looking at the backline, attack positions. We need now someone around the scrum, but I think also we want to look at someone that gives a coach support.
“You can look at the different coaching structures around the country, and it’s not just on the field, it’s off the field that the coaches need support. Most of the guys we have will know how to coach. When you get to that level of the game it’s the things that come at you everywhere else that you’ve got to learn to deal with, and it’s about squad management, planning your roster, it’s about the week-to-week pressures that you (media) guys put on them.
“There’s a whole range of different things that come outside of the actual coaching part of it. You can’t take the brunt of that yourself for what is it, nine, 10 months of the year that we’re going. You’ve got to be able to share that around. You’ve got to have people you can confide in, that can steer you, that can give you direction, so it’s all of those things and you need those people within your group, and that’s what we’re trying to build.
Despite the departures of Flannery and Jones, Nucifora spoke positively about the current state of play at Munster.
“It would be preferable if it didn’t happen but I think that things are reasonably well under control down there, with regards to where we’re going to move. Everyone’s been fairly proactive with it and there’s some good conversations happening at the moment. We’re in touch daily at the moment with Johann and others down there and I think things are heading in the right direction.
“It was always identified down there a fair way out that they needed some extra experience in the group. It’s an arduous, tough job and I think each coaching group, the synergy of the coaching group is really important in how you gel what you’ve got. What does each person bring to the table and where are you lacking?
“You’re always trying to get better and it was identified that they did want to bring in another coach and that coach had to have a certain skillset to add to what they needed. Now, that’s been the plan.
“What’s happened with Jerry and Felix making a decision, they didn’t want to be a part of that — moving forward. I suppose that’s disappointing, but it is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to try and continue to improve that coaching group.
“We would have been happy if they would have stayed and we would have worked hard with them to keep improving. Now we’ve just got an opportunity to bring in some really good experienced coaches to support Johann and the team because there’s a good playing group down in Munster and I think that we can get them to that next level if we all make the right choices with the coaches.”