Johann Van Graan relishing onset of new era

Johann van Graan. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Two coaches, one biding his time before assuming control on the day after the game and the other facing one of the most significant challenges of his career, will be central personalities when Munster face Zebre on the resumption of the Guinness PRO14 in Parma tomorrow afternoon.

Munster’s new boss Johann van Graan is leaving the main business to assistants Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones before officially taking over on Monday whereas Michael Bradley will focus 100% on ensuring Zebre perform to the utmost of their abilities in the hope of inflicting a first defeat in 10 matches on the team he graced so successfully for many years.

Van Graan only arrived at Munster HQ on Monday having finished his tenure as assistant South African coach the previous day but stresses that he is enjoying himself thoroughly.

“It has been very busy the last few weekends,” he reflected. “I was here for the Racing game, flew to South Africa and went straight into Springbok camp. I finished off with two Test matches, the last on Saturday evening, with the Springboks against the French.

“I really enjoyed Felix [Jones] and Jerry [Flannery] the previous times I was over and I had a very good debrief with Rassie [Erasmus] and Jacques [Nienaber]. So we have been planning for this all along. I am looking forward to the game at the weekend. Jerry and Felix are taking the lead in the rugby this week and from Monday I will take full control.

“I watched the big Munster matches on television over the years. I remember the 28 phases they created before Ronan O’Gara dropped a goal late in one famous match. And there was the day in the final when Peter Stringer scored an unbelievable try.

“I admired them for integrity, excellence, ambition, and passion and I saw all of that again in the game against Racing. There was a fight in the second half and the crowd started singing and it was a new experience for me. It was fantastic.”

Munster have made two changes from the side that easily disposed of the Dragons last time out. James Hart replaces the injured Duncan Williams at scrum-half and Sam Arnold, scorer of two tries against the Dragons after coming on as a late replacement, takes over from Chris Farrell, who starts for Ireland against Argentina.

Darren Sweetnam comes back off international duty to start on the wing with Simon Zebo at full-back, JJ Hanrahan at out-half and South African Chris Cloete at wing-forward.

In his role as coach of Zebre, the former great Cork Constitution, Munster and Ireland scrum-half Bradley would enjoy nothing more than putting one over on the team he represented so well and so proudly for many years.

But he is seriously hamstrung by having as many as 10 players away with the Italian national side and is unlikely to have the resources to deal with a team of Munster’s strength in depth.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Munster captain Billy Holland who in his youth used to caddy for his dad Jerry in friendly golf matches with Bradley and has been keeping a close and appreciative eye on what he has been achieving with Zebre.

“Micky Bradley knows us well and adds a little twist to the game along with an added incentive for himself,” said Holland. “They have also had Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter from the Italian set-up coming down to help them and you can see across the board that they are doing things differently. They have decided, let’s have a go and try things and if it doesn’t work, so be it.”

The Bradley influence is also focusing the minds of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones.

“Personally for Brad, being a Munsterman, he’s going to want to put down a marker,” warns Flannery. “They probably look at these games and think, Munster are missing a lot of players and if they don’t get a result against us, it puts them under the pump. I’m sure Brads is going to give them the Munster psyche and that’s the way we are looking at it.”

ZEBRE: C Gaffney; P Bruno, G Bisegni, F Afamasaga, G D’Onofrio; M Azzolini, G Palazzani; C Ah-Nau, L Luus, E Bello, J Tucker, L Krumov, J Sarto capt, J Meyer, D Minnie.

Replacements: O Fabiani, A De Marchi, R Tenga, D Fragnito, M Mbanda, R Raffaele, M Pratichetti, V Bernabo.

MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; JJJ Hanrahan, J Hart; L O’Connor, R Marshall, S Archer, J Kleyn, B Holland capt, J O’Donoghue, C Cloete, R Copeland.

Replacements: K O’Byrne, B Scott, C Parker, D O’Shea, S O’Connor, J Stafford, B Johnston, C Nash.

Referee: Lloyd Linton.

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