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Dublin: 1 °C Monday 21 January, 2019

Van Graan forever chasing the perfect game

The South African hasn’t enjoyed a settled team since arriving last year, but there are clear signs of progress.

Van Graan joins in training at UL this week.
Van Graan joins in training at UL this week.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT’S HARD TO escape a sense of contingency about the job Johann van Graan has done with Munster since taking the reins a little over a year ago.

Every team have their share of injuries to deal with, of course, but the timing of Munster’s have felt particularly punitive.

In the early months he was new to the role, the Six Nations came and took Chris Farrell, Keith Earls was laid up for the short-term before the fateful Heineken Champions Cup semi-final trip to Bordeaux and the South African recently pointed out that he had Tyler Bleyendaal at his disposal on just two occasions before his November comeback.

Simon Zebo headed for the exit, Conor Murray was kept on the sidelines and still has yet to sync up with Joey Carbery in red.

Last week it looked as though a period of shifting sands was coming to an end, with a team selection that was very close to the strongest XV Munster could put together.

By kick-off, soft tissue problems had taken Carbery and Farrell out of the starting line-up. Contingency plans in effect again.

It was a shame, because the evidence of the thumping dished out to Edinburgh in Cork a week earlier suggested that the southern province’s attack was hitting high gear with all the primary playmakers in line.

Ideal circumstances and conditions would be nice, but the young head coach knows: more often than not, rugby requires the ability to adapt rather than specialise.

“That’s why I say every week ‘we start at zero’,” says Van Graan. And it should be noted that he is true to his word, the phrase is trotted out every week.

“Every week you strive for the perfect game. I’ve only been involved in two or three in my whole career where you say ‘that’s close to the perfect game’”.

Searching for those diamonds in Van Graan’s coaching history might lead to the Springboks’ 2014 win over the All Blacks in Johannesburg, or the 2009 Super Rugby final when his Blue Bulls pack – led by Victor Matfield – laid a rock solid platform for a 61 – 17 win over the Chiefs. Finals are not supposed to be so one-sided, but therein lies the magic of perfect days.

Johann van Graan before the game Van Graan on the field ahead of the win over Edinburgh in Cork. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With Munster, he hasn’t tasted satisfying perfection over the course of 80 minutes yet. But as an expanded Thomond Park sells out for a Christmas inter-pro in record time, there is a feeling that something special is brewing all around the club.

“We’re not there yet,” he says before offering the highlights of his tenure to date:

“Our first 30 minutes against Edinburgh, from an attacking point of view. The way we moved and the speed we were at, I think we were pretty close then. The second half of round 6 last year against Castres last year, I thought we did that (win 48-3) really well.

“Some parts of the Toulon (quarter-final) stand out, but a perfect game, no not yet.

“That’s the beauty of it, we have such a long way to go. We as a squad acknowledge that there’s a European champion setting the benchmark at this stage.

“We’re quite a way off that at this stage and we have to fight to get there.”

He adds: “we want to get there as a squad, it would be great to play the (perfect) game every week, but I think we’re showing improvements in each department.

“Mentally we overcame another battle this week, losing two players and filling the void and adapting our plan at half-time when anything could happen. Taking the game away from the opposition, it would be great to hit our straps this weekend, you just never know…

Johann van Graan with Billy Holland Van Graan talks through the line-out with Billy Holland last week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I think it’s consistently doing well, that’s what we’re looking for. We’ve said the whole year: we’ve done well last year but right at the end we maybe fell short.

“We want to prepare the whole year to make sure that, if we get into a play-off game, to really hit our straps then. We’ll just take it week by week.”

Talk of perfect games is clearly a far cry from what onlookers witnessed last Sunday lunchtime when Castres came to disrupt, destroy and frustrate rather than show any creative elements of their own personnel.

Look, if you told me before the game we’re going to get the win I would have taken it. We left some opportunities out there but I think you get what you deserve. Possibly we left a few out there but we’re pretty happy with the win.”

“We also have to give them credit, I thought they were pretty patient at Thomond on Sunday as well. It was a really fiercely contested game up to the last minute — I think it was the 82nd minute.

“We expect another big battle. We expected one this weekend and we got it and I think we fronted up well to that. Like I said, they’re a quality side.”

And they usually force teams to dig through more than just their A game.

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Sean Farrell

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