New Munster coach Johann van Graan should have left South Africa after the 2015 World Cup, but Springbok coach Allister Coetzee insisted that he honour the remaining two years of his contract instead of taking the head coaching job at Bath.
But Coetzee, after an uneasy relationship with the talented 37-year-old Van Graan, didn’t stand in his way a second time when Munster came calling a few weeks ago.
If anything he was angry at losing one of his bright young backroom members.
“Have you seen Van Graan’s contract? Have you?” Coetzee shouted at a member of the media when quizzed about Van Graan’s future days after he was linked to Munster. “Johann is contracted to SA Rugby. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
It was hardly the reaction of a man happy to be rid of a member of staff.
And it’s obvious why – there isn’t a harder working man in SA Rugby. Van Graan comes with nearly 15-years worth of coaching experience at rugby’s sharp end and has spent the last five as the Springboks’ forwards coach, technical strategist and occasional attack coach.
Before that he fulfilled similar roles for the Bulls in Pretoria, when they not only ruled the domestic game in South Africa, but the southern hemisphere provincial game too.
While Van Graan quietly analysed opponents to the ninth degree, he honed his skills as a coach because he was forced to see the game from every perspective. He’s not a forward, attack or defence coach, he’s all of them and more.
Van Graan has done every job in the book and is the better for it. He was a promising schoolboy and U21 rugby player, having spent two years in the Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool (Affies) first team in the late 1990s.
It was the same school that produced Fourie du Preez and Pierre Spies among others. He played for the Blue Bulls U21 team at the turn of the century but realised early enough that he wasn’t likely to make it at the top end as a player.
In 2003 a young Bulls coach named Heyneke Meyer brought Van Graan into the coaching setup as a technical analyst.
The callow 23-year-old was almost immediately seconded to the unfashionable Mpumulanga Pumas union where his coaching development accelerated rapidly in the second tier of South Africa’s uncompromising domestic game.
Van Graan returned to Pretoria the following season, wiser and more experienced, as a technical analyst for a Bulls team that was in the early stages of its southern hemisphere dominance.
They won the Currie Cup in 2004, made the Super Rugby semi-finals in 2005 and 2006, while sharing the Currie Cup title again in 2006.
In 2007 the Bulls became South Africa’s first Super Rugby winners. Van Graan was an integral part of the management in all those campaigns, plotting and scheming as he studied hundreds of hours of opposition footage.
By 2008, new Bulls coach Frans Ludeke had seen enough to put Van Graan on the training field as attack and forward’s coach. The Bulls won Super Rugby again in 2009 and 2010.
When Meyer became Bok coach in 2012 one of the first people he approached was the workaholic Van Graan. The Bulls were loath to let one of their rising coaching stars escape, but they didn’t want to stand in Van Graan’s way of further development.
Munster have snared themselves a coach with a deep well of experience and tactical acumen, despite his relatively young age. Van Graan is also well-liked by players, who can relate to a man similar in age and outlook as them.
Van Graan’s most obvious challenge at a club as big as Munster is proving he has the personality to be a head coach. He is thoughtful, intelligent and always well-prepared.
He now has to show a ruthless streak and the ability to man-manage a variety of personalities and expectations, but given his attention to detail, those are traits he will comfortably develop.
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