Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A sorry way to end but history will still be kind to Johann van Graan

The departing Munster coach got many things right in his five years in charge although his play-off record was not good enough.

IT WAS APPROACHING 10.30pm on Friday when Johann van Graan’s press conference came to an end.

A long trip to Limerick was up ahead, the bus waiting outside, its engine running. Surrounded by people who have criticised his tactics, and whose pencils had been sharpened over the course of the previous couple of hours, van Graan could have been forgiven for wanting to get out of dodge.

He was in no rush. One by one, he went around the people in the room to shake their hand. “I know you have stuff to write,” he said. “You have a job to do but no matter what you write, I want you to know it has been a brilliant five years (being in charge of Munster).”

The man has a touch of class about him. However, his team, on Friday, lacked that precise quality.

They often do at this time of year. Any analysis of the statistics from his five years in charge require context. An overall win ratio of 67 per cent is impressive but another statistic is not. From 14 knock-out games, his Munster team won just four, against Toulon in his first season, Edinburgh and Benetton in his second, Exeter this term.

That’ll frame the narrative around his legacy, that inability to make Munster more than just a quarter-final or semi-final side. Other criticisms require scrutiny though.

Too often it has been said that he has failed to bring players through, an accusation that is plainly untrue. Munster have used 59 players this season and used over 50 in the previous two seasons. On Friday we saw academy graduates Ben Healy, Thomas Ahern, Diarmuid Barron, Alex Kendellen, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes and Josh Wycherley involved, each of whom made their debut under van Graan.

craig-casey Casey has come through under van Graan. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Remember the team he inherited? Probably not, so here it is, the one from his first game in charge: Zebo; Sweetnam, Arnold, R Scannell, Wootton; Hanrahan, Hart; O’Connor, Marshall, Archer; Kleyn, Holland; O’Donoghue, Cloete, Copeland.

Brick by brick, van Graan dismantled that side and brick by brick he rebuilt it. Anyone who says the squad he has left his successor is weaker than the one he inherited from his predecessor is either blind or stupid.

In this respect, history will be kind enough to him. Right now, in the aftermath of a dismal performance on Friday, there is little doubt that his time is up and that it is just as well he is voluntarily moving on. Coaches have a shelf-life. And once the freshness goes, you need change.

Still, some balance is required. Tactically, he has been the recipient of a fair deal of grief, a lot of it from Munster fans on social media, plenty more from ex-players, some from these quarters, too. Two points need to be made here.

One, criticism comes with the territory. Any coach who doesn’t like it, really they should do something else for a living, because they won’t escape it. In any case, Munster’s style of play does merit a harsh analysis. On Friday they were shocking.

Yet even though they were poor, the other side of the argument needs to be heard as well. Friday was a bad night but Munster have had plenty of good ones under van Graan. They have beaten Leinster (admittedly not often enough), Leicester, Racing 92, Clermont, Toulon, Exeter and Saracens under his watch.

Those are the names of every Champion Cup winner (plus a few beaten finalists) bar La Rochelle and Toulouse, since Munster last won the trophy in 2008. That isn’t the work of a failed coach.

cj-stander-and-johann-van-graan-celebrate-after-the-game Stander and van Graan after the 2018 win over Toulon. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It’s the work of a coach who played the hand he was dealt fairly well, who made shrewd signings, who identified the dead wood in the squad and got rid of it, who integrated youth with experience, who achieved consistency throughout the winter months but who didn’t do enough in the play-offs.

“This one hurts,” he said about Friday’s loss to Ulster. “I think the thing for me was the quality of our performance.

“We created so many opportunities and we just knocked on the ball – I think something like 19 turnovers, starting with the first kick-off of the game and we knock it on. The frustrating thing is how uncharacteristic this was for us as a group. There’s certain things in the game that went well but not close to good enough to win a quarter-final.”

Sympathy came from the man whose team had just beaten his.

“You know the worst thing about it? Johann – I really like Johann,” Ulster’s Dan McFarland said. “I get on really well with him. I think he’s a really good coach. He’s such a nice fella.

“I wish he was a nasty man because then at least I can grumble at him. But such a nice fella so it’s really difficult. And it makes it difficult to go and have a beer with him now.

“He’s done a really good job in Munster. I believe he’s done a really good job in Munster. Yeah, they haven’t played well the last two games but the bottom line is, you can’t expect both teams that played out here to win.

“That’s ridiculous. One of us was going to lose. And yet in the morning I read doom and gloom, what they’re doing is terrible. But somebody’s got to lose.

“It’s a tournament with 16 teams in it that Leinster have dominated for last five years. Any team who wins it that isn’t Leinster will literally have doubly performed from what you expected at the beginning of the year. So let’s not kid ourselves.

“Nobody expected anybody other than Leinster to win this tournament, at the beginning of the year.”

Van Graan’s problem was that people did expect. He’s surrounded by posters at Thomond Park of great wins from the past. He listens to ex-players talk of the glory days from the pundit’s chair. He had to constantly look over the neighbour’s fence and watch one Leinster celebration party after the next.

It wasn’t a handy gig. The next one – taking over a side that has just finished bottom of the Premiership – might actually be easier. At least there won’t be a line of long-gone heroes telling him how great life used to be.

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