It is only a month ago that Munster Rugby was looking forward to a new era of stability, brought about by a settled coaching ticket.
Yet 29 days after head coach Johann van Graan signed a two-year contract extension, the province was thrown into further turmoil yesterday when two of his trusted assistants, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, turned down similar offers, triggering their exits at the end of the season.
It marks the end of an era for both men. Former Ireland hooker Flannery, 40, played all his professional rugby in his home province and served on the coaching staff from 2014, first as scrum coach and latterly as forwards coach. Jones, 31, played 90 times for Munster but was forced to retire due to a neck injury in October 2015 and rejoined as a coach the following summer, becoming backline and attack coach under Rassie Erasmus ahead of the 2017-18 campaign.
Flannery spoke of coaching Munster as a “dream job for me” and added: “Leaving the province is not a decision I took lightly, but I look forward to watching the squad go from strength to strength.”
Jones said: “It has been an absolute honour to have played for, and to have coached Munster Rugby. I would like to thank the players, coaches, management and fans who have supported me over the last 10 years.
Both had talked this season of the strides being made in developing Munster’s gameplan and collective skillset in van Graan’s first full campaign since succeeding Erasmus in November 2017 and the future looked bright for all concerned.
To say this is a deeply unsettling turn of events for Munster, then, is an understatement. Finally, it had seemed, the organisation had turned a corner and was
contemplating the rich possibilities that a stable management and talented, committed squad could realise.
Van Graan has, after all, decided to do what no predecessor since Tony McGahan had managed to do and stick around beyond his initial contract, bringing to an end the unintended short-termism that had bedevilled the province since the departure of McGahan’s successor Rob Penney after two seasons in 2014.
An encouraging phalanx of first-team frontliners had pre-empted van Graan’s decision by signing new deals in the previous six months to take their careers with Munster into the next decade, a sure sign of satisfaction with the direction being taken, and, significantly, there will be no A-list departures from the province to pastures new this summer, as has been the case in the past two close seasons when Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo jumped ship.
Last month’s Champions Cup semi-final humbling by Saracens in Coventry, when Munster struggled to find a response to the English side’s aerial threat, relentless physicality and suffocating defence, suggested there is still much more improvement left to undertake, a point amplified last week by Ireland centre Chris Farrell voicing his frustration at the lack of cutting edge in attack.
Yet the disappointment expressed by both van Graan and acting CEO Philip Quinn when announcing the double blow yesterday afternoon was understandable.
“As Johann has noted all along, the province was committed to retaining the services of both Jerry and Felix,” Quinn said, “and I believe the Professional Game Board made every effort to retain the coaching duo with competitive terms.
“While we understand their respective decisions, we are hugely disappointed with the latest development, but wish them every success in the future.” Van Graan added:
The head coach was on the record as saying he wanted Flannery and Jones to continue as valued staff members alongside his own pick as defence coach JP Ferreira. Suggestions that he wanted a new attack coach, and all that implied for Jones, were wide of the mark, however, and though van Graan did state he was looking for a new coach, the position being sought was for a wider remit, to lighten the burden on the existing staff with a multi-purpose brief across all their posts.
Whether that scouting mission was part of the reason for the two assistants to turn their backs on van Graan remains to be seen but the head coach now has a more pressing search on his hands in the coming weeks or next season will be a write-off.
Instead of adding icing on top of the coaching cake, he must now start shopping for the fundamental ingredients, though the potential of this squad should be an attractive recruitment tool.
Nevertheless, it is taking the Munster boss’s mantra of resetting to zero after every game to new levels and one must wonder what sort of an effect it will have on the playing staff with a PRO14 semi-final at Leinster to prepare for in 10 days.
“As a coaching group we will continue with the same commitment and drive for success as always, working towards our upcoming Guinness PRO14 semi-final,” van Graan insisted but this threatens to turn an already difficult assignment into mission impossible.