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Van Graan intent on soaking up knowledge from every angle in first stint as a head coach

From Gert Smal to Paul O’Connell and Doug Howlett, the new Munster boss wants plenty of company on his coffee breaks.

IT’S A STEEP learning curve, Johann van Graan is well aware of that.

But as he settles in at Munster, the 37-year-old first-time head coach is already putting down roots he hopes will slurp up as much knowledge and information as he can.

Johann van Graan and Andy Farrell Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That includes welcoming the presence of Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell to training this week and also the search for a full-time defence coach to work alongside him – a position he hopes to see filled in the near future. But almost as important to the former Springbok assistant are the more informal chats he is seeking out to get as clear a picture as possible about his new surroundings.

“There will definitely be people coming in and out for short bursts. There are some pretty amazing people here in Limerick that I’d also like to get involved at some stage.

“(I’ve) still got to have a few coffees on that, but I believe nobody knows everything, nobody’s got the secret formula and I’d like to have as much expertise coming into the team as possible to make this a winning team.”

There are many amazing rugby people around Limerick, and all over the southern province, but the first name put to Van Graan was Paul O’Connell’s. The South African has already had a brief chat with the former Lions skipper and also with Doug Howlett. He’s pencilling in coffee breaks to pick the brains of the best rugby minds the province has to offer.

Paul O'Connell Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He’s well aware that Declan Kidney is not far away too. And while he has not yet made contact with the Grand Slam and double Heineken Cup-winning coach, he has picked up plenty from the man who was his forwards coach in the Ireland setup.

“I’ve spoken a lot to a guy like Gert Smal, that has coached here before, or ex-players. A guy like Wian du Preez gave me a fascinating view of his perception of Munster. I spoke to few players outside of Munster at other provinces, what would be their perception of Munster and it’s all pretty amazing.

I’ve got no ego. I’d like to explore every possible avenue, learn as much as I can as quickly as I can.

“I believe you’ve got two ears and one mouth in life and, for the first two months, I’d like to listen as much as I can and kind of take it from there and decide who might be involved as consultants or not.”

As first impressions go Van Graan is, well, impressive. There’s no fanfare or trumpeting his arrival into the lecture-hall style room Munster use for their media duties in their UL high performance centre. He strides in, and casually veers up to the fourth row of seats to begin making his way through introductions.

‘I’ve heard a lot about you’… ‘nice to meet you’… ‘I’ve seen your picture a lot’…

CJ Stander has made pre-press conference handshakes a welcome human addition to protocol, but Van Graan patrolled the entire room to ensure he didn’t miss an arm, out-stretched or not.

He comes across as a man who has made every effort to learn and study how to best manage and lead people.

In his past positions though, Van Graan was a very popular figure among players, but the move from assistant to head coach so often means taking on the ‘bad cop’ role. Moving into the top coaching job also means a raft of new responsibilities that will to some degree distract from Van Graan’s core skill-set of coaching and analysis. He says that won’t change, but perhaps his approach will ‘grow and adapt’.

“I don’t believe  you work with players, coaches or media people or journalists. I believe you work with people. That’s one of my sayings, I believe you should treat people the way you want to be treated.

“Definitely, more distance from my side in terms of the players, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a good relationship with them. Definitely, there will be hard conversations in time.

And a first for everything: it’s the first time I’m in this role, will I make mistakes? Yes, I’ve said that the players. But that’s why we’re a team and a squad. Ultimately that’s my responsibility and I’ve got to make sure I’m in alignment with myself.”

“I think the most important thing is you’ve got to have good people around you. Jerry (Flannery) and Felix (Jones) are brilliant at what they are doing. Andy (Farrell) coming in this week lessens a bit of the load and hopefully we’ll have a defence coach in pretty soon.

“I believe, analytically, that’s a strength of mine. But also in previous teams that I’ve been involved with, I like to keep in the background, the big picture. That’s also a strength of mine that I believe can add value (with), inclusiveness.

“I like to get opinions, but at the end of the day I’ll make the decision based on the vision of the club, the vision of the team and what my beliefs are.

Johann van Graan Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“At the end of the day it’s an opportunity. It’s different from my previous roles but I believe I’ll find the right balance sooner than later.”

It may be 15 years since the 22-year-old Van Graan last held a head coaching role, but he has moved his wife and two young sons to Limerick and is determined to pour everything he can at the job to make it work.

“I had to convince my little boy that he’s not going to support the Springboks at this stage, we are going to watch the ‘takbok’ as they call it in Afrikaans, the stag. So yeah it was a big decision for me.

“Change is good. I needed another challenge. I’ve been assistant coach now for a very long time. Like I said before I had wanted different opportunities a few years back, but I felt it was the right stage for me to move on, spread my wings. I have got big dreams but that being said I need to be part of something bigger than myself.”

And when it comes to legend, lore and the depth of feeling they inspire, he couldn’t have found a club much bigger than Munster.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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