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'He certainly has a ruthless side to him as well, which is vitally important'

Johann van Graan has convinced Munster that he’s the man to drive the province forward.

JOHANN VAN GRAAN and Mark McCall first met back when the now-Munster head coach was in charge of South Africa’s forwards.

The Springboks used Saracens’ training ground at St Albans during the 2015 World Cup, when McCall and van Graan had a bit of a chinwag.

These two rugby-obsessed coaches surely looked to pick each other’s brains and McCall will hope this week that he didn’t give away any secrets back in that first meeting.

Johann van Graan Van Graan at Munster training yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

That said, van Graan is one of the most diligent analysts of the game and is sure to have pored over every detail of Saracens play in recent times.

A student of the game, it seems likely that van Graan has been examining Saracens for some years, given that they have been one of the leading teams in world rugby under McCall and are widely studied.

A thirst for watching as much rugby as he can is one of the strengths van Graan brings to coaching, but there is more to this South African – enough to convince Munster and the IRFU to nail him down to an extended contract running through until 2022.

Whatever happens at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry on Saturday, as Munster face McCall’s Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals, the southern province are certain they have the right man in charge.

“He has a lot of great attributes,” said Munster captain Peter O’Mahony yesterday. “He’s obviously very good at dealing with guys, personally, one-on-one and he’s good at dealing with the squad.

“He’s very diligent in his work, what he does. A huge work-rate and I think his adaptability, particularly with regard to what’s going on with regard to us, he’s certainly given us a lot of responsibility, which we needed to take on as a group of players.

“I think we have a good relationship between us and our leadership group, which is vital. We’re always chatting and bouncing ideas off each other and I think we’ve found a good place at the moment.

Peter O'Mahony with Johann van Graan after the game O'Mahony with van Graan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’re working well together and enjoying the game plan that we’re implementing well at the moment. I think he’s been great.” 

O’Mahony pointed out that it was particularly difficult for van Graan to come on board midway through last season after Rassie Erasmus upped sticks, but Champions Cup and Pro14 semi-finals were a creditable return at the first time of asking.

“He’s certainly taken it by the throat this year with regard to him actually doing a bit more coaching and that kind of thing, which has certainly helped,” continued O’Mahony. “He’s been great for us.”

Van Graan’s ability to build relationships is one of the aspects that attracted Munster to the former Blue Bulls assistant, with the 39-year-old famously serving as a groomsman at the weddings of a number of Springboks including Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn.

O’Mahony has seen that friendly side of van Graan but underlined that there is more to him than meets the eye.

“He’s very personable, very easy to talk to. I think he enjoys that side of it as well, the relationships and that kind of thing. He has that with guys but at the end of the day, it’s rugby for him.

“That comes first, which is the most important thing for us and him. He certainly has a ruthless side to him as well that might not be seen across the cameras, which is vitally important as well in this game. I think he has a good balance between both.”

Having had a full pre-season and this entire campaign to get his ideas across, van Graan must feel like this Munster team is now getting closer to the embodiment of his philosophy on the game.

Johann van Graan and Tyler Bleyendaal celebrate winning Van Graan is renowned as a strong man manager. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That’s what makes the run-in to this season so intriguing from a Munster point of view, beginning with the semi-final against Saracens on Saturday.

Last time Munster played the English behemoths in Europe, at this stage two years ago under Erasmus, they were convincingly beaten and didn’t really fire a genuine shot. 

Can van Graan’s Munster give it a better go?

“He has obviously done a great job since he took over,” said his counterpart, McCall.

“Just analysing Munster and just how impressed we have been and how well organised they are and the improvements we have seen from the team who we played two years ago.

“I think the core they have got is good. They have a few new names there but generally, the squad is more or less the same.

“There are no obvious weaknesses there. They do the fundamental things brilliantly, so we know we are in for a really tough challenge on Saturday.”

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Murray Kinsella

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