It’s been something of a rollercoaster week for Munster, what with a face-saving draw on the road against Castres, the weakest of the French participants in this season’s Champions Cup, to complement the confirmation of a new head coach, writes Donal Lenihan.
Factor in the ever-present shadow of Anthony Foley on the first anniversary of his death in Paris and the emotional documentary on his passing aired on RTÉ on Monday night. Factor in too the ongoing preparations for Saturday’s crucial game against Racing 92 and you begin to appreciate the plethora of issues floating through the minds of the players and management.
The defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium has already been erased from the memory bank — at least until they meet again in Thomond Park on St. Stephen’s Day — and the visit of Racing to Limerick can’t come quickly enough to get Munster’s qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions Cup back on track.
With a new head coach now confirmed, a win against Racing will place Munster in a decent position to mark the handover from Rassie Erasmus to his fellow South African Johann van Graan for those back-to-back clashes against Leicester Tigers in December.
Little was known of Van Graan until his name came on the radar in connection with the Munster job a few weeks ago but, given the dearth of top quality, experienced coaches available in the market at present, Munster have done well to secure his services.
At 37, Van Graan appears young in coaching terms but he has accumulated 14 years experience at the highest level of provincial rugby in South Africa with the Blue Bulls and at international level with the Springboks to suggest that Munster have chosen well.
They may also have struck lucky in that their reported first choice for the job, another South African, David Wessels, chose the Melbourne Rebels over Munster. I suspect that, in time, Wessels will come to regret that decision more than Munster.
The one caveat attaching to Van Graan’s appointment is his lack of experience as a head coach. That question mark also hung over the appointment of Joe Schmidt when Leinster plucked him from Clermont Auvergne but he didn’t work out too badly. If Van Graan achieves anything like the impact Schmidt has made in Dublin then Munster will be well served.
The most important issue surrounding this appointment is that the new man is offered the time and space to make his mark. There has been too much chopping and changing in the head coaches office at Munster in recent times.
Since Tony McGahan departed the scene in 2012, Rob Penney and Axel had two years each as head coach while Rassie Erasmus will be gone after only 18 months in charge, having handed in his notice with less than a year of his contract expired.
The fact that Van Graan was offered the role of head coach at Bath over two years ago but wasn’t released from his contract by the South African Rugby Union is also significant. He was too good for the Springboks to lose and good enough, even then, for Bath to headhunt.
Hopefully, having waited over two years to prove himself in a new role, Van Graan will be desperate to make up for lost time.
So, what awaits him when he arrives? As a highly-rated Springbok forward coach who presided over a very competent forward unit that propelled South Africa all the way to the World Cup semi-final in 2015 — they only lost 20-18 to eventual winners New Zealand — Van Graan will first examine the platform available to him up front.
For a man used to working hand-in-glove with one of the best lineout tacticians in the game, former Bulls and Springbok lock Victor Matfield, the most disquieting issue he will find is an unprecedented lack of depth in the second row department.
For years Donnacha Ryan, Dave Foley, Ian Nagle and Billy Holland were forced to bide their time behind the immovable partnership of Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan. That depth in quality was the envy of most squads, especially Leinster who were struggling to produce top quality locks at the time. With the exception of the retired O’ Connell, all the others are still plying their trade in the professional game, but Holland is the only one still in Munster colours.
In terms of leadership, consistency of performance and value for money, Holland has been outstanding for Munster in recent seasons and beavers away at the coalface almost unnoticed. With due respects to Mark Flanagan, currently on loan from Saracens, even a few short weeks ago he could hardly have envisaged making his Champions Cup debut for Munster.
Gerbrandt Grobler was brought in on a one-year contract to shore up the loss of Ryan — who incidentally would also have been unavailable had he stayed due to a neck injury — but he has been out injured since making his debut against Worcester Warriors in the 26-35 pre-season friendly.
Jean Kleyn started this season magnificently, with three tries in the opening two Guinness Pro14 games but a worrying recurrence of the neck injury that sidelined him last season has prevented him from featuring in recent weeks. Hopefully, he will return to action this weekend. He is badly needed.
One wonders what the reaction of Van Graan will be when he rocks up at Munster’s, state of the art, training facility in Limerick and spots O’Connell, in his capacity of Academy consultant, picking over the performances of Munster’s academy forwards in the All-Ireland league on his laptop in the analysis room.
Given that Van Graan would have plotted with Matfield in attempting to negate the impact of the Limerick colossus in his many battles against South Africa’s lineout king for Ireland and the Lions, he must surely ask the question — can I involve him with the senior side?
How ironic too at a time when Leinster appear flush with quality second rows that Munster have opted to sign a former Leinster academy product in Tadhg Beirne — an acquisition I fully support - from next season to help ease their problems in that sector. Leinster struggled in this area for years and without the inspired signings of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn, might not have dominated Europe to the extent they did between 2009 to 2012.
Early indications suggest that former Wallaby Scott Fardy will prove another excellent signing as his partnership with Devin Toner develops. Even then when Fardy was ruled out of last Saturday’s clash with Montpellier when his wife went into labour, Leo Cullen had the luxury of bypassing Ross Moloney on his bench to hand the highly-promising James Ryan his European debut.
Ryan, who won his first cap for Ireland before featuring for Leinster and scored a try on debut within minutes of his arrival off the bench against USA, is a quality performer and an international captain in the making.
Despite the bulk and power of the Montpellier front five, Ryan slotted in seamlessly and looked to the manor born. Munster could do with that type of quality coming through but will have to improvise as best they can in the short term and hope that Kleyn returns to action as soon as possible.
Saturday’s outing against Racing 92 will prove pivotal in setting the tone for Van Graan’s arrival and for the rest of the season. A win is imperative and a big performance is on the cards.
Having started their campaign with an impressive victory over Leicester Tigers last weekend, the Parisian outfit is sure to prove more of a handful this time out than in any of the corresponding fixtures last season - especially if Dan Carter and Brice Dulin recover in time from injury.
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