Much has been made of Munster’s connection to South Africa’s World Cup victory but it took some time with Johann van Graan this week to fully appreciate just how much more there is to those ties than a mere name game.
The old boy network is everywhere in modern professional rugby, with players and coaches coming up against former clubs every week and at face value, the cross pollination between Munster and the Springboks is as run of the mill.
Yet behind the post-match embraces between former comrades there is often an awful lot more than meets the eye.
On Wednesday in Cardiff, at the 2019/20 Heineken Champions Cup season launch, Munster head coach van Graan revealed his sentiment for the people he left behind in the South African camp two years ago as he spoke about their dominant World Cup-winning performance against England last Saturday.
He had been in the Welsh capital four days earlier ahead of Munster’s clash with the Blues and was an avid viewer of events in Yokohama on the morning of his game. Van Graan had left his role as the Springboks’ forwards coach in November 2017 to succeed Rassie Erasmus in the Munster hotseat as his predecessor and defence coach Jacques Nienaber returned home to join the SARU’s high-performance unit, taking head of strength and conditioning Aled Walters with them.
It was not too long before the trio was in place with the Springboks. Van Graan would also see his former attack coach Felix Jones join the ticket shortly before the tournament, three months after quitting the province but no-one could be happier for him than his old boss.
“It has been incredible,” van Graan said of Jones. “He (Felix) will be over in Limerick in the coming weeks to come and say hello. I said months ago that he is someone we tried to retain. I am so happy for him. He has gone on to win a World Cup. Going into a different nation just before the World Cup is difficult but everyone speaks so highly of him. We are incredibly proud of Felix, a Munster man to win a World Cup.”
Under head coaches Heyneke Meyer and then Allister Coetzee, van Graan experienced many highs and lows during his five years with the Boks, having followed mentor Meyer from the Blue Bulls into Test rugby in 2012 as a technical advisor.
By the 2015 World Cup he was both forwards and attack coach, enduring the shock pool defeat to Japan before coming so close to defeating New Zealand in the semi-final.
Such experiences strengthen bonds and van Graan will have watched every minute of Saturday’s final with a deep emotional intensity.
"I have been in contact with most of those lads for the last two years. Like I said to the guys I am currently coaching, I am not in it for fame or ego, you want to make a difference. Hopefully someday when I leave Munster I will have made a massive difference here.
“To me it is more about the people. Some of the individuals, I’ll use someone like Eben (Etzebeth), 2012 against the English was the first Test in Durban that he played. It was my first Test as well and I went on for 74 and he has gone on to achieve amazing things.
“Siya [Kolisi], was a young man when he was selected in 2013. I was with him when he ran onto the field when Arno Botha tore his ACL. I just told him ‘Siya, this is just another game, do what you always do’. Now, six years later he is the World Cup-winning captain. That’s incredible.
The victory has clearly been emotional for van Graan, who added: “What I experienced, I’ll try and explain it the Munster way. What I experienced in this community — pride, passion, belief, respect - and that’s why I came to Munster, because I am a South African and associate with those words. But to see the difference it makes in people’s lives is incredible. I thought through the World Cup, England were the best team due to their performances but once it got to the final, after two minutes, it was clear South Africa would win. You can’t defeat set-piece dominance.
“I think it was on 43 minutes that Beastie (Tendai Mtawarira) and Francie (Malherbe) went off and on came Kitsi (Steven Kitshoff) and Vincent (Koch), two tanks and that first scrum they dominated England straight away.
"Literally, every maul and scrum you were just waiting for a penalty. It is very difficult to defend and the way Jacques (Nienaber) had structured the defence, so incredibly well, once you are playing catch-up to such a strong defence the more you want to play the more you get suffocated.”