WHY wasn’t your head turned by Munster, he said.
‘Who said my head wasn’t turned’, I snapped back.
It was of course. It was a rough 24 hours. That sort of thing can leave a man a bit unsteady until you settle down and look at the big picture.
‘Then put that at the start of the column,’ he suggested.
Here’s the thing: I am in a very happy place personally and professionally here in La Rochelle. I love Munster rugby, I always will, but now is not the time. It is always nice to be considered a potential candidate, and I’ve had an initial courtesy call, but it goes no further.
I have signed a contract until 2023-24 and I have never broken one. I’d like to think I’m a man of my word and if I was to walk on La Rochelle after five months as head coach, I’d be some Judas. The Top 14 is the best league in the world, it’s a ballbreaker at times but it’s a brilliant rollercoaster experience for all that.
When we heard Johann van Graan was on his road, Jess and I had a wordless conversation. The sort where looks render words unnecessary. If all this doesn’t work for the family, it doesn’t work for me. I’m selfish, and your initial thoughts are always as a competitor, but we love France. However, I’d be lying if I said I slept well Tuesday night.
Ultimately it doesn’t stack up in my head but there’s always a part of you cognisant that you can miss the moment too. They talk about ‘The Plan’, but the plan goes out the window when something like this hits you over the head.
I’ve done a few contracts as coach since 2013 and in most of them the question is asked: do you have an out in the contract to coach Munster or Ireland in the future? I don’t. It is not something I have ever specified, and that’s important. These are massive decisions in a person’s life so don’t think for a minute that Munster thoughts were fleeting and then out of my head. I’m glad we’ve a big European trip to Bath this weekend to keep everything in focus. There’s a great project just starting here.
Why should I sign a contract and be allowed leave after six months? What differentiates me or gives me a get-out to do that? If I break my bond, how can I look at a player and criticise them for doing so. If you do that once, you are going to do it again. Sign a one-year deal if you are waiting for something better to come along. It works both ways. La Rochelle have committed to me too. I signed up for three years, and importantly next summer is a first opportunity to make signings and shape the squad as I see fit. After that you’ve only 24 months to make that group work and be successful. Three years aren’t long in going. It is only beginning to take off now. Over the course of the next twelve months, the first batch of signings and those on contract extensions get to start gelling.
Unlike at home, it seems players in France believe everything they read in the media.had me pictured on Wednesday with a grumpy head apparently on my way out of La Rochelle. A lot of people were demanding clarity and a call.
THE departure in quick order of Munster’s current coaching ticket presents an intriguing opportunity for the province. Johann van Graan has been there the guts of five years, and it’s fair to say he’s been chugging along, if not exactly flying it. His well-advertised departure to Bath and Stephen Larkham’s return to Australia provides the scope now for a complete root-and-branch review of the direction Munster Rugby wants to go.
Rugby has adopted the football model of management teams. It is rare now for a head coach to be appointed in isolation or to an existing staff when there are so many disparate philosophies at play. You don’t appoint an attack coach before a head coach who might have zero interest in working with said assistant. Anyone who thinks that lads get sensible and agreeable in their forties and fifties doesn’t know how the male works and how cranky and difficult we get. The chemistry in any management team has to be spot on. Age doesn’t always equal maturity.
So suddenly the Munster scenario is a lot more appealing for a coach who knows now he will be coming in as part of a pre-agreed package. For Munster, a direction change is crucial. The Springboks won a World Cup on the back of kick pressure, and they were exceptional in doing so. That is their DNA just like a Kiwi coach might want his side to handle the ball more. The fact that Munster and the IRFU decision makers were prepared to commit to van Graan for another couple of years suggests they were comfortable with the progress being made in Munster. Ok then.
Last Sunday, Munster had nine internationals and a bunch of young fellas, and the key takeaway was how they were set up to play. They played with no fear. The storyline wasn’t the 34 players missing, it was this new group expressing themselves, footballers with pace running good lines and into gaps. It has taken some time to recognise that while there is a role for the box kick, it doesn’t have to be the go-to option, the primary tactic of your team.
Van Graan will move to Bath on better terms. I don’t think the rugby will be better there but Munster’s players will move on next season. Players have to be selfish - when it’s no longer the now, it takes no more than a training session or two with the new guy to move on. This one is slightly different because van Graan and Larkham are there for another six months, so there will, I assume, be motivation to finish well with the coaching team and consolidate a good block of work that Munster have under their belts at this stage.
How far away are they? Because there is no outstanding European superpower, possibly not as far as they fear. In terms of a monster like a Saracens in the past, they’re not there at the moment - Leinster, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Leicester have shown glimpses, there are around ten teams with Champions Cup aspirations, but it is hard to know who will step up.
Remember also, world class coaches would definitely be interested in coaching Munster. Take that as read. There are options in terms of structuring a new management team – whether they do director of rugby and a head coach, or a pair of head coaches like I had with Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit at Racing 92. Mike Prendergast and Graham Rowntree could work well.
Some speculation is already pointing towards New Zealand, which is interesting. Scott Robertson would want to coach the All Black next, so that is very doubtful. Jason Holland is with the Hurricanes now, and there are only five franchises in New Zealand, so it is a prized gig. But I would imagine Munster’s wellbeing would always interest him and he is a bloody brilliant coach with a bundle of knowledge from both hemispheres at this stage.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of good options closer to home. I haven’t seen Mark McCall’s name mentioned so far though I am not sure why. He would be an outstanding candidate, has done it at the highest level and could be someone ripe for a new challenge.
When a job like Munster comes up, a lot of coaches instinctively pause and take stock. Where am I? Could I do that? After my second season in Christchurch, I knew I was a more rounded proposition. Jonno Gibbes was good enough when I came here to give me my head. It has provided me with a platform and an assurance to take into the head coaching role.
Eventually, we will move home to Ireland – I think. You know how many times I have been at home in the last two years? Hardly at all. Covid is a factor but the Top 14 is an animal and demands all your concentration. It’s something a coach can do for a finite period. Mentally it’s extremely demanding. But it’s addictive.