Just four months into his first job as a head coach, Johann van Graan is still adapting to a vastly different life in a different climate with a different attitude to rugby. But he has made a swift mark on the province as he creates a Munster for people who get up early in the morning.
Situations move quickly in rugby. Take the Six Nations. Just seven weeks ago Ireland were staring down the barrel of a French gun in Paris, rampant England had a third Six Nations title in a row and Jacob Stockdale was a championship rookie little known outside of the four provinces. And we all know how things have progressed in regard to each of those scenarios.
Things change at a remarkable speed in this game and Johann van Graan would have every reason to feel the room is spinning around him, given the rate of adjustment necessary in his world as he settles into life as Munster head coach.
Such is van Graan’s apparent poise in the role, it can be easy to forget the South African is just four months into his very first head coach’s job having arrived in Limerick on November 19 last year, straight from his final involvement as a Springboks assistant coach.
Today’s visit of Guinness PRO14 champions Scarlets to Thomond Park will be just his 14th game at the helm, having succeeded compatriot Rassie Erasmus midway through the campaign, and van Graan, who turned 38 last Sunday, will be eager learn how his new charges react to a disappointing loss having been sunk by Edinburgh at Murrayfield last weekend.
There has been little opportunity for him to reflect on how he has been coping for not only is van Graan just weeks into his first head coaching role, he is doing so in a totally different rugby culture to the one he has known since childhood having moved countries with wife, Melissa, and sons Wyatt, four and Max, 11 months.
That is a lot for any person to take in, let alone without the safety net of a gentle introduction a pre-season might have afforded him.
Talking exclusively to the Irish Examiner, van Graan reflected on having to hit the ground running and recalled his first night in Ireland, spent initially in the company of his new management staff, assistant coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, and team manager Niall O’Donovan.
“I remember when I came on November 19, flew in after the France versus South Africa Test and went out for dinner with Felix and Jerry and Niall, then got back into our new house. My family was still in South Africa and when I sat down on the bed I thought to myself, ‘okay, this is really happening now!’
“I’ve come with an open mind. I’m lucky to have been part of bigger than myself throughout my whole career and that’s why I came to Munster. It’s very different. It’s a different country, firstly. The weather is totally different, the people are different and the way rugby is approached is different. I think that’s the brilliant thing about this game.
“I’ve said to Jerry and Felix, it’s amazing how life works. We’ve only actually known each other for four months but rugby is such an amazing game that it’s more than the rugby. It’s about people, about life and I’m just grateful for the people around me and haven’t regretted it for one moment.”
In terms of Munster’s desire to implement a “seamless transition” from outgoing director of rugby Erasmus to the incoming head coach van Graan, the new boy has certainly done his level best to keep his end of the bargain.
“Ever since I came here I said I was here to enhance and not change straightaway. I’ve listened a lot. The big thing for me was relationships with players and staff, getting to know guys and look at the way they train. And once I saw something I went back to what I saw in games.
“When I came in most of the squad was already signed for next season so we’ll make one or two changes in the coming season and then maybe, let’s call it my second year (next season), if we were able to bring in one or two more players we’ll do that as time goes.
“But I’m happy with the way things have gone. Balance is a big word in my life. You’ve got to have the balance right in terms of decision-making and going with your gut, and then going on facts and then trusting the people around you.
"There’s some very good people at Munster, I trust their judgement and whenever there’s a big call to be made I’ll make that call.” Making the call is not something that fazes the first-time boss.
“No. That’s part of the job. Somebody needs to make the call. When I came I knew this was the first time I was going to be in this role. I’ve embraced it and I’ll do my research as best as I can. Once a call needs to be made you make it with all the information possible at the given moment and make the call.
“It’s something I wanted to do since I started coaching. In 2012, just before the opportunity with the Springboks came along I thought about trying to step into a head coach’s position then but I was only 32 years old and I believe life works out the way it should and looking back at it now, it wasn’t the right time then.
“Six years of international experience now and that’s when the Munster opportunity came along I really thought it was something I’d like to pursue and I’m very grateful for the opportunity that Munster have given me.”
Van Graan appreciates making that decision not to become a head coach six years ago but despite working in Test rugby under Springbok head coaches Heyneke Meyer, also his mentor at the Bulls, and then Allister Coetzee, he admitted there have still been surprises on taking the top job himself.
“The speed of decision-making. I was an assistant coach for a long time and you always give your opinion as an assistant coach. I believe I was a very good assistant coach because I gave my opinion and then whatever the coach decided I backed that.
“Once you’re the head coach you’ve got to make that call. That’s something that I wanted, something I’m embracing and I’ve said from day one, like everything in life, there will be times when I make mistakes and then it’s about knowing that and rectifying it.
“I’ve just enjoyed every single moment. It’s been so fast and so intense that I haven’t had a lot of time to actually think about the role and think about the change, I’m just going day in and day out.
“I knew before I came into the role that it was going to be difficult because you’re coming into a team, a settled squad and a management team, they’ve been through a pre-season, they’ve been coached a specific way and they believe in certain things and have certain values.
“Once you parachute straight into a season, I got here on a Sunday, started on a Monday and we played Zebre on the next Sunday. Then once situations arise you’ve got to deal with them and it’s not about whether it was due to me or someone else, I’m the head coach of Munster now and you’ve got to take that responsibility on board. You’ve got to walk in front and whatever comes your way you’ve got to take and you’ve got to take responsibility for it.
“It’s been different but it’s something I haven’t shied away from. I’m the head coach of Munster now and I’ll take everything that comes with the job.” How will van Graan judge success for the current campaign given his late arrival?
“That’s a very good question!
“I’d love to say that we must win a trophy but then again success isn’t always measured in trophies.” It is suggested that trophies are the exact barometer by which some people judge success, to which van Graan replied: “That’s true. Look, at the end of the day, if you cut away all the fat and go straight to the bone, it’s about winning and losing.
“If we don’t win a trophy people might say it was not a successful season and if we do, then it was. To me, it’s important that we get into the PRO14 play-offs. We are in the play-offs of the Champions Cup and we play at home against a Toulon side that can create magic on any given day. So hopefully we can get through that well.
"We have to travel to France for an away semi-final and semi-finals are very strange games but I won’t even get to that, we’ve just got to focus on the quarter-final.
“PRO14, it’s still so wide open in our pool. We could still possibly get to Glasgow but we’re currently sitting in second and we’ll have to do well because the Cheetahs are not far behind us.
“I wouldn’t want to create any expectation. We as a team have set out specific goals and we’ll go quietly about our business and try and improve week by week and once we are in knockout games we’d love to win those knockout games.”
Home comforts will count for a lot when Toulon come calling to Thomond Park next Saturday and van Graan said he would back Munster against anyone in a knockout game.
“Yeah, especially at home. Knockout games are about pressure, about individuals and teams being able to apply pressure, being under pressure and coming out of it, and then you need world-class players to come through and get you match-winning moments.
“Mostly in massive games it’s about one individual turning it into a winning or a losing game.”
With Scarlets visiting this evening, Toulon looming large, and two days after that a departure for a 12-day, two-game PRO14 tour to his native South Africa ahead of a possible Champions Cup semi in France on their return, there is much to occupy Munster’s new coach.
Yet van Graan is determined to lead by example, which is why it will be difficult for anyone on his staff to beat him into the High Performance Centre on a working day.
“I’m an early riser, between 4am and 4:30am. I like to be here first in the mornings, around 5am. I’ve learned this from Heyneke Meyer, one of the first things he taught me is that the pace of the pack is always determined by the leader.
"I can’t expect people to work hard and to set an example by putting most of their time into Munster Rugby if I don’t set the example.
“That’s why I’m here first in the mornings.
“I believe in planning and that’s how you gain those one per-centers and make sure you look after the other 99 per cent as well.
"So it takes a lot of time of my day but I’m also a big family man and once I get home I try and spend some time with my wife and two boys because they’re the most important thing in my life. My family always comes first.”
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