Saturday’s PRO14 contest between age-old rivals Munster and Leinster at the Aviva Stadium offers both management teams the perfect litmus test to examine the progress made in the opening phase of the season but, important and all as this fiercely contested derby is, Munster have bigger issues to address.
Despite a decent start to the competitive season, the shadow hanging over the impending departure of Munster’s first-ever director of rugby looms large, not just over the squad, but the organisation as a whole. It’s the question I’ve been asked most frequently since the season kicked off, ‘who will Munster appoint to replace Erasmus?’
Well, now we know or, at least, we think we know. The exact position is this. Johann van Graan has been offered the position but, as yet, has not officially accepted. It is anticipated, but not certain, that once the Rugby Championship is concluded next weekend, he will do so.
Up to last Thursday, the widespread speculation was that another South African, David Wessels, was ready to step into the breach. It was also reported that Munster wanted a joint coaching team of Wessels and van Graan but that option was never even discussed.
I must confess I had never heard of Wessels until he was linked to the job but, on further investigation, I felt distinctly underwhelmed by his pending appointment. Frankly, I think Munster dodged a bullet here.
The Munster Professional Board (MPB), working in tandem with the IRFU performance director David Nucifora, spread the net to assess all possibilities, with four potential candidates identified.
Spending a month in New Zealand on Lions duty recently only served to remind me, once again, of just how high a profile and standing Munster rugby holds, even in the most obsessed rugby culture of them all. That status needs to be reflected in the person holding the coaching reins.
So what credentials did Wessels possess for such a demanding and pressurised role? On face value at least, very little. To date, he had enjoyed only one season as a head coach, with Super rugby strugglers Western Force.
To be fair, Wessels was well received by the players and administrators at the Force but heading up Munster rugby is poles apart from dealing with a Perth-based outfit barely a decade in existence and now disbanded. Winning six of their 15 Super rugby games this season was deemed some sort of success for the Force. He wouldn’t get away with that at Munster.
What Munster need right now, especially with Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones in the infancy of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful coaching career, is a head man with a loaded CV and a winning track record. At just 35, Wessels didn’t offer that.
When Glasgow Warriors lost Gregor Townsend to the Scottish job, the SRU sought to continue his excellent work by recruiting one of the top names in the coaching world in the Waikato Chiefs Super Rugby-winning coach Dave Rennie. You can imagine the message that sent to their players — Glasgow Warriors mean business.
Munster appeared ready to take a punt on Wessels, and let’s be honest here — that’s exactly what the appointment would have been.
When originally linked to the head coach role with the Melbourne Rebels — ironically to replace former Munster coach Tony McGahan — which he has now accepted, Wessels said ‘I have ambitions that one day I’d like to be among the best coaches in the world and at the moment I think I’m quite far from that’. Indeed.
Now the spotlight is firmly on van Graan, another South African who has never operated as a head coach. What he does possess is a hard-core experience of the game at provincial level — he was a key member of the Blue Bulls coaching staff when they won a number of Super XV titles — and at international level. He does carry a proven track record as a forwards coach and an ability to formulate and implement a game plan. Crucially, however, he has never operated as a head coach which isn’t ideal. Then again neither had Joe Schmidt before arriving at Leinster.
We are told that he brings a very strong work ethic and a deep rugby knowledge. One would expect that these are amongst the basic requirements to carry out such an onerous and demanding role.
While he is more noted as a set piece coach, he is also credited with expanding South Africa’s attacking strategy. This has to be a key component for any new Munster appointment as their limitations in attack were brutally highlighted at the penultimate stage of both the Guinness Pro12 and Champions Cup last season.
This shortcoming raised its head again in Munster’s only fixture to date against a team capable of delivering some silverware this season, namely Rennie’s Glasgow. When Munster’s physicality is matched up front, they encounter problems. As a consequence, their attacking play badly needs to evolve.
If Munster were happy to appoint someone who hasn’t previously enjoyed the role of head coach but proved himself in international management, the solution lay under their nose with someone who has already garnered the respect of all the players who have worked under him.
It takes a certain skillset to get the best out of the traditional make-up of a Munster squad and, in my opinion, current Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell has exactly what it takes to do just that.
A dual rugby international, after hanging up his boots he was immediately drafted into the coaching staff at Saracens. Crucially he was part of a management team that developed the structures and culture that have since elevated the club to the point where they are now Europe’s leading side.
As a coach, he has also experienced the dark side of the sporting spectrum. He was responsible for England’s defensive organisation when they imploded in a World Cup tournament hosted in their own country in 2015. For a man used to being successful at anything he turned his hand to, that experience has already served to stand him in better stead for the next phase of his coaching development.
It takes character to rebound from that chastening experience but Farrell, along with his boss at the time, Stuart Lancaster, chose Ireland to pick up the pieces and rebuild his career. Both, Farrell with Schmidt and Lancaster with Leo Cullen at Leinster, have achieved just that.
Farrell started his post-World Cup rehabilitation as a consultant to the late Anthony Foley when the Munster coach was in need of an outside voice and a catalyst for change. The fact that he impressed everyone in Munster during that period in early 2016 set lights flashing when news of Erasmus’s departure first came to light last season.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the MPB did have Farrell as a key target to replace Erasmus but the one obvious stumbling block to a possible move down south was a reluctance by the national management to lose him from their coaching team.
The question here is should the IRFU, and Nucifora in particular, have looked at the broader picture? Will Farrell contribute more to the national set-up by presiding over a strong and competitive Munster team than he would by being pigeon-holed in the role of national defence coach?
If he is seen as a genuine contender to succeed Schmidt as Ireland head coach after the 2019 World Cup in Japan — he must already be on that shortlist — would a two-year stint as a head coach not prepare him even better for that role? Meanwhile, a decorated province holds its breath as van Graan ponders his next move.