Johann van Graan seeking to develop extensive Munster brains trust

Johann van Graan is seeking to develop a Munster brains trust at the province to guide him through his opening months as head coach, with Paul O’Connell a possible member of his think tank.

Johann van Graan during Munster training at the University of Limerick in Limerick. Pic: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

His first major step, however, will be to appoint a new defence coach.

The South African, who left his role as the Springboks forwards coach 11 days ago to take up a first post as a head coach, watched assistants Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery take charge last week as he began adjusting to a new life in Limerick. They steered Munster to a bonus-point Guinness PRO14 victory at Zebre last Sunday, but van Graan, 37, has hit the ground running since the return from Italy.

His first full day in charge on Monday saw Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell back at the University of Limerick in a reprise of his consultancy role alongside the late Anthony Foley in January 2016.

Back then, the Englishman stayed for a month before his first Six Nations campaign in Joe Schmidt’s management set-up; this time it was just a two-day stint as van Graan attempts to fill the void left by the departure of Jacques Nienaber, who vacated the position earlier this month and returned to South Africa with Rassie Erasmus.

A permanent replacement is imminent, however, and there will also be plenty of faces, new and old, moving in and out of Munster’s High Performance Centre in Limerick over the coming months, with the new head coach signalling his intent to surround himself with as much experience as possible during his early days in the job.

A new defence coach, van Graan said yesterday, was “one of our big focus points”.

He said: “There’s one or two names as possibilities but I want to make sure I get the right person.

“We’re thankful for Joe (Schmidt), we’ve been in contact all along, Andy is here for today and tomorrow. The good thing is there were 14 players in the Irish squad. He and Jacques also worked together pretty closely. He is here for a helping hand. Felix has done brilliantly over the past two weeks but we are exploring some names and hopefully sooner than later we’ll have — not an announcement — but someone coming in.

“That’s definitely my decision, in accordance with the powers that be at Munster and the IRFU, but obviously I’d like to have a big say in that.

“In terms of consultants, I wouldn’t like to elaborate on that now but there will definitely be people coming in and out for short bursts.

“There are some pretty amazing people here in Limerick that I’d also like to get involved at some stage. Still got to have a few coffees on that, but I believe nobody knows everything, nobody’s got the secret formula and I’d like to have as much expertise coming into the team as possible to make this a winning team.”

As amazing rugby people in Limerick go, it is difficult to look past former Munster,
Ireland, and Lions captain O’Connell, currently a part-time consultant to the province’s academy.

“Most definitely. I briefly spoke to him at the Racing game (in October) and we’ll meet up at some stage in the next few weeks. He was one of the world’s best players, played 100 Test matches for Ireland, if I’m not mistaken, and was captain of Munster, so most definitely.

“A guy like Doug Howlett, I spoke to him at the Springbok Test and there’s previous coaches involved in Munster that I’d like to spend some time with.

“I’ve spoken a lot to a guy like Gert Smal, that has coached here before, or ex-players. A guy like Wian du Preez gave me a fascinating view of his perception of Munster.

“I spoke to a few players outside of Munster at other provinces, what would be their perception of Munster and it’s all pretty amazing.”

Nor did van Graan rule out giving double Heineken Cup-winning coach Declan Kidney a call. “Yes, most definitely. I’ve got no ego. I’d like to explore every possible avenue, learn as much as I can as quickly as I can.

“I believe you’ve got two ears and one mouth in life and 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.”

It might sound as if there is a danger of too many voices competing for van Graan’s two ears but the new head coach was at pains to clarify that for the first time in his coaching career the buck stopped with him.

“Inclusiveness, I like to get opinions but at the end of the day I’ll make the decision based on the vision of the club, the vision of the team and what my beliefs are. At the end of the day, it’s an opportunity. It’s different from my previous roles but I believe I’ll find the right balance sooner than later.”



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