Johann van Graan has urged Munster supporters to look at the positives of a playing squad in it for the long haul despite the “strange” situation of two key coaches deciding to quit.
Munster have been rocked by decisions of forwards coach Jerry Flannery and attack and backline coach Felix Jones to leave the province they served as players and coaches at the end of this season, the club declaring both men had turned down competitive contract extension offers to remain.
The announcement of their departures came last week, making for curious timing in advance of Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final against defending champions Leinster at Dublin’s RDS.
Head coach van Graan, who signed a two-year contract extension himself last month that will keep the South African at Munster until June 2022, said he was satisfied the province’s Professional Game Board (PGB), which negotiates contracts, had done all it could to keep Flannery and Jones on board.
Yet he admitted that given the buy-in from leading players such as Conor Murray, Tadhg Beirne, and Joey Carbery, each of whom extended their contracts into the next decade, the coaches’ decisions to walk made for a strange situation.
“It is. It’s very sad and I’m disappointed. I believe the PGB did everything in their power to retain both of our coaches and unfortunately that didn’t happen. Now we’ve got to look forward.
“Philip Quinn, our acting CEO, as has Garrett (Fitzgerald, the CEO currently on extended sick leave) before, is doing those negotiations, and I’ve had support from the PGB.”
Van Graan also moved to reassure Munster supporters who had every right to question what was going on behind the scenes at the club.
“I don’t think anything is going on,” said the Munster boss. “I’m very saddened and disappointed that they are going.
“Both of them got offered contracts and both of them are leaving for different personal reasons.
“It’s a club that both of them like. We, as a group of management and players, respect them so much and as we do with all people at Munster rugby, it’s a professional sport and people make decisions and people move on.”
He added: “To Munster supporters, I’d say 22 players have signed on. Tadhg Beirne and Craig Casey are the latest additions. Tadhg and Joey (Carbery) signed on with another year on their contracts.
"All of our Irish guys who we wanted to keep we have kept, so we have an incredible group of players going forward into next season.
"That’s the most important thing for me, that the playing group must be happy and then the support staff right across the organisation are there to make sure that the players perform on the pitch and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Van Graan is committed to returning the coaching team to its full complement of five that was in post when his predecessor Rassie Erasmus was director of rugby and the late Anthony Foley was head coach with defence coach Jacques Nienaber, Flannery as scrum coach, and Jones skills coach.
When Jones and Flannery leave, van Graan will have only fellow South African defence coach JP Ferreira by his side, and the immediate task is identifying three suitable coaches to get his staff up to five.
I’ve said it all along, we’ve noted in our coaching staff, we wanted to bring in an additional coach to spread the workload on the four of us.
“I’ve said it since I came in. Firstly it’s about finding the right people and we’ll follow the right process in getting those people.
“I think firstly it’s identifying who those people are. You want three coaches across world rugby who are the right fit, and all at the same timeline...
“This is how it’s worked out now, so we’ll take our time in filling the five positions.”
Van Graan disputed the suggestion another chunk of Munster’s identity would leave along with Flannery and Jones.
“Not at all. Obviously, it is so important for Munster to keep the Munster-ness of it. We have some fantastic people here, (performance analyst) George Murray has been here for 17 years, he is here every single day of his life.
“We’ve got (team manager) Niall O’Donovan that’s been through the process so many times, so we will try and keep Munster as much a part of Munster as we can.
“I just want people in here who want to serve Munster and that is why I said when I came in here, it is not about me, it is about this club and doing what is best for this club.
“We will do our best, but it doesn’t matter where the coaches are from as long as Munster are winning and as long as we produce players for Ireland and this club keeps moving forward, that is all that is important to me.”
Van Graan has seen a number of names linked with the newly created vacancies, including Wales attack coach Rob Howley and the past and present Ireland U20s head coaches, Mike Ruddock and Noel McNamara.
“There’s been talk about a lot of guys, so I’m not going to respond to any names,” he said.
“I’ve read about a few guys who are supposedly on some shortlist, some guys I don’t even know. We’ll follow the diligent process to get the right people at Munster Rugby.
“We’ll take our time and the most important thing is we must take the team forward, and just make sure that we get guys who can better the team.
“Both Jerry and Felix are fantastic coaches. They’re guys that I’ve trusted with my life. We’ve worked well together so well and I guess you guys can see from the passion in my eyes I really wanted to keep them.
“Unfortunately that’s not the case and you can look at the bottle as half full or half empty.
“I’m going to look at it as half full and look at positives, and we’ve got to take this team forward now.”