Ryan Byrne/INPHO Graham Rowntree during Munster training on Monday.
Work to do

Rowntree lands his 'dream job' but Munster promotion will be no easy ride

The province’s forwards coach is set to take over from Johann van Graan in the summer.

FINALLY, the search is over. Almost four months to the day since Munster announced head coach Johann van Graan would be leaving at the end of the season, they now have their new man signed up to step into the hot seat.

The IRFU will have cast the net far and wide before settling on a coach already on Munster’s payroll, and news of Graham Rowntree’s promotion from forwards coach to the top job appears to have split opinion.

Any concerns are understandable. Rowntree has never been a head coach before, and for some, his involvement across the last three seasons is enough of a black mark against his name. 

Yet while other candidates were believed to be cool on the idea of taking charge at Thomond Park, Rowntree made no secret of his enthusiasm for the position. 

Luckily for him, he found himself in the right place at the right time. Munster hadn’t been planning on changing their head coach this year, as Van Graan signed a new contract extension last summer. Yet as soon as the South African activated a clause in his contract which allowed him to back out of that new two-year deal, Rowntree threw his name in the hat. All of this, as he put it, was “never the plan” when he first came to Limerick in 2019.

Munster may not be the force of old, but this is still one of the biggest jobs in club rugby – some stage to get your first crack at being the boss.

Yesterday, Rowntree spoke to the media on a press call shortly after Munster confirmed his promotion.

“I’m proud, for such a famous club, such a fanbase, such a following, such a great group of players,” he said.

“It’s my dream job, this, and I’m looking forward to getting into it next season.”

A popular figure among the playing group, Rowntree says a lot of the right things when talking about Munster’s history and heritage. A one-club man in his own playing days, the former Leicester Tigers prop clearly understands the importance of culture and identity at a club.

Yesterday, he described Munster’s storied history as “inspiration” for the current group. The big question is, is he the man to bring them back to the top table?

I know that (there is pressure) but you’ve got to know when in your career that you’re ready for it and I feel at the moment I am. The experience, it’s the right fit for me, this club. So I know the pressure’s going to be greater but that’s for me to deal with and me to get the right people around me to help me deal with that.”

Rowntree’s appointment is only one part of the puzzle, as Munster prepare for a summer of change.

Senior coach Stephen Larkham is heading back to the Brumbies while defence coach JP Ferreira will join Van Graan’s new adventure in Bath. Rowntree is involved in the discussions around the make-up of his new coaching team, but wasn’t in the mood to give too much away, other than teasing that there would “potentially” be some Irish coaches involved.

He did however suggest that Munster won’t be bringing in a director of rugby, outlining that the coaching ticket is likely to remain along the same lines of the current structure.

I’d say the latter, a similar looking coaching setup. That’s for me to finalise in the near future. I’ve got some plans. I’ve spoken to certain people. But in answer to your question, it will be a similar looking coaching ticket.”

With the next chapter of Munster’s story beginning to take shape off the pitch, it will be interesting to see how this latest development unfolds on it. The sight of Rowntree and Van Graan continuing to work together in the existing dynamic for the rest of this season is another odd quirk of what has been a messy situation. 

Even before Van Graan announced his impending exit, there was a staleness about the province under his stewardship, a limited gameplan adding to the sense that this was a club stuck in a rut.

johann-van-graan-and-graham-rowntree James Crombie / INPHO Rowntree (right) and current head coach Johann van Graan. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

However there are hugely talented young players coming through the ranks – for which Van Graan must get some credit – and the hope is that Rowntree can inject some fresh energy into a squad that for some time now, has looked a little bit lost.

The sight of empty seats at Thomond Park for the recent interpro defeat to Leinster brought about uncomfortable discussions about supporters “losing faith” in their team.

Rowntree was asked if he had any specific message for those who may be concerned about the direction in which the club is heading, who have become disillusioned with the style of play.

“Stick with us,” he replied. “Stick with us. You know, we’ve not been far off. It’s finishing off, isn’t it? We have been in finals and semi-finals. Stick with us.

“We are going in the right direction. What more can I say than that? Why do I believe? It’s the group of players we’ve got here and the guys coming through.

“We’re not that far off. Obviously as a head coach, you have (to put) your own mark on things but that’s for me to finalise in the next few months. And that will be obvious in the coaches that come under me.” 

This may not have been part of the plan for Munster or Rowntree, but here we are. After another couple of underwhelming seasons for the province, both parties will desperately want this unexpected turn of events to work out.  

In the final episode of the series, The Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – welcomes comedian Killian Sundermann in to studio. The online funnyman fills us in on his schools rugby days, gaining recognition during the pandemic, making his stand-up debut and travelling around Europe in a van. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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