The Munster core values van Graan dare not tinker with

Johann van Graan’s first week as a head coach is one he is unlikely to forget, says Donal Lenihan.

The Munster core values van Graan dare not tinker with

Following on from Keith Earls’s hamstring injury in Irish camp before the November opener against South Africa, came the news that Chris Farrell will be out of action until the end of January after injuring his knee.

With Jaco Taute already crocked and out of the pool stages of Europe, Van Graan now faces a midfield crisis.

The fact that another long-term injury casualty in Leicester Tigers’ Manu Tuilagi could make his latest comeback just in time to exploit any vulnerability Munster may carry into this key area will not be lost on the new coach.

To compound that sequence of events, speculation emerged about a potential move abroad for Peter O Mahony, followed within 24 hours by the possibility that CJ Stander may be following him out the door.

Welcome to Munster, Johann.

As an assistant coach, even with such a beleaguered squad as the current Springbok one, you are sheltered somewhat from the external pressure that constantly attaches to the role of head coach — even if the poor performances of the team are eating you up inside.

As the main man, you are front and central with no hiding place. If van Graan was in any doubt as to the enormity of the role he is undertaking in Munster, his first few days in the job would have spelt it out very clearly.

Coming into the role in mid-season presents an even more difficult challenge. There is simply no time to ease your way in and get to know your players and coaching staff.

Further distractions such as having to deal with the possible departure of your captain, a man steeped in the history and tradition of the province, is not ideal.

Couple that with the potential loss of a second Lions back rower and you have to feel for the new man.

Hopefully, these issues will be resolved to Munster’s satisfaction. On the back of losing Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, the province just couldn’t absorb that double whammy.

The frustrating thing for van Graan is that he is powerless to do much on this issue as both O’Mahony and Stander will be negotiating directly with IRFU director of rugby, David Nucifora.

That said he, along with Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, must apply the pressure on rugby headquarters. A successful Irish team is dependent on Munster being strong.

In some respects, the timing of van Graan’s arrival could not be more challenging. On his introduction to the media in Limerick last week the new man stated that “for the first two months, I’d like to listen as much as I can and kind of take it from there and decide who might be involved as consultants or not”.

The big problem here is that the two months in question are likely to prove the defining period in Munster’s season. Those challenging, back-to-back, games against Leicester Tigers will be instrumental in keeping Munster’s drive for a Champions Cup quarter-final slot alive going into the new year.

If Munster are still in the hunt by the time Castres arrive in Limerick at the tail end of January, van Graan will have made a very good start to his tenure but, with away trips to Welford Road and Racing 92’s impressive new U Arena in Paris to come, that will be far from straightforward, especially if Farrell is ruled out for all of those games.

Outside of Europe, Munster face into a sequence of feisty derbies in the Guinness PRO14. Van Graan will sample the healthy rivalry that exists between Munster and Leinster for the first time when Leo Cullen’s men arrive in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day.

After that he will get to experience another spicy encounter when Munster travel to the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast to play Ulster, followed immediately by the visit of Connacht to Limerick.

These games just keep coming thick and fast. No wonder he has declared that there will be no tinkering with the existing game plan or playbook in the short to medium term.

Saturday’s game against the Tigers will prove crucial to what happens immediately down the road in Europe. Having already drawn the opening game, away to Castres, Munster must win this one to entertain hopes of progressing to the knockout phase.

Van Graan’s influence on this will be limited, yet he needs a positive result to keep Munster’s European aspirations alive. He must have been encouraged by Munster’s commanding performance and positivity in attack against an admittedly poor Ospreys side in Cork last Saturday.

In addition, the impressive showing by new signing Chris Cloete in the back row and by the highly promising Sam Arnold in midfield — whose injury issues since his arrival last season has proved a real setback for all concerned — were the big plusses from that outing.

It helps that van Graan has already sampled the special the atmosphere that accompanies a Champions Cup game in Limerick when he was more than just an interested spectator — observing from a corporate box a short distance from the coaches — when Munster defeated Racing 92 last October.

In his final post-match briefing after that game, former supremo Rassie Erasmus aptly summarised in three words the attributes his successor was inheriting — heart, guts, belief. In a nutshell, he served to remind people what Munster rugby is, and always has been, about.

Recognised as a highly efficient, hardworking and technical coach, the big question van Graan must have been pondering on the flight back to Johannesburg after that encounter was, how close will those attributes bring him and his squad to achieving silverware.

It’s a reasonable question.

There are multiple examples out there of big spending clubs, especially in France, who have managed to assemble a mouth-watering array of stellar names and international quality from all over the world but have nothing to show for it.

Montpellier immediately springs to mind. I watched them warm up against Leinster at the RDS a few weeks ago in the Champions Cup and was struck by how under-conditioned they looked.

They have big pay cheques but a poor work ethic and it showed as that game progressed.

In addition to the qualities highlighted by Erasmus, I would add one more to the mix: Identity.

Munster certainly have that. Without those key ingredients, it is difficult to achieve success. To capture silverware, especially against the top clubs in Europe, requires a little more invention and creativity in attack.

That is the ultimate challenge facing the new man. Can he add more potency to Munster’s attacking game?

In the short term, with a series of demanding clashes on the horizon, winning is all that really matters, starting with the Tigers’ game on Saturday night. Substance and style can follow down the road.

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