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History will be kind to Johann Van Graan but end of season parting is best for everyone

The Munster coach has divided opinion yet he has still managed to take some decent scalps in his four years with the province.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE WERE THREE television cameras, half a dozen radio microphones, a couple of photographers and 15 members of the Press staring at Johann Van Graan when he walked through the door.

This was December 2017, the day he was unveiled as Munster head coach, the day he began to figure out the difference between being an assistant and the one calling the shots. “I’ve got no ego,” he said at one stage during the 40-minute media debrief.

In his line of business it is better to have one. It’s a tough gig, running a professional club, where you have boards, supporters, players and media to answer to. Yet here was someone who was self-deprecating to the point of appearing a little unsure.

It remained that way for a fair chunk of his first season until the week of the Champions Cup quarter-final when he casually mentioned the big days of his past, a World Cup semi-final with the Springboks, a Super Rugby final with the Bulls.

That Toulon game was his best as Munster head coach. After all, just three years previously, the French club had won their third Heineken Cup in a row. They were a big fish. Munster – Johann Van Graan’s Munster – reeled them in.

andrew-conway-celebrates-his-try-with-teammates The Toulon win was the best of JVG's reign Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

We tend to forget that in our assessment of the coach’s Thomond Park reign. He may not have delivered a trophy but he has some decent scalps on his CV, Toulon, Saracens, Racing 92, Exeter Chiefs, Leicester, Castres and Clermont.

The record books also show five semi-finals and a final during his tenure. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that he has lost them all. As Ger Gilroy phrased it on Off The Ball earlier this week, it has been grand, Johann Van Grand. He’s done a reasonably good job, not as bad as his harshest critics have put it, but ultimately his CV lacks a trophy emboldened in print.

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If it was a different club, the South African would be looked at in a different light. There’s no doubt about that. Look at the teams who have made it to a European semi-final over the four years Van Graan has been Munster’s head coach: Racing 92, Toulouse, Saracens, Leinster, Exeter, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Scarlets and Munster.

Seven of those clubs have bigger budgets, while Scarlets – the side with a smaller wage bill – were one-hit wonders, their fall as swift as their rise. So, like almost every aspect of Van Graan’s reign, there are two sides to the argument. Has he done well to get to the semis? Or has he been found out at the higher stage?

His problem is what’s happened before. Throughout the noughties, Munster defied expectations. It wasn’t just that they conquered Europe twice; they always put up a fight whenever they fell short. Think Leicester in 2002 and the Backhander; think Stade Francais and the disallowed try; the 2004 classic with Wasps, the narrowness of the defeat to Northampton in 2000.

players-follow-the-flight-of-the-ball-2752000 Munster won respect but not the cup in '00. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Plus there were Celtic/Magners League wins, in 2003, 2009 and 2011 to keep the pot boiling. Van Graan’s record in that competition sums up his tenure. There has been steady growth – to the point that they won 14 of their 16 regular season games last season. But there have also been four defeats to Leinster in the knockouts. In three of those games, they barely showed up.

This wouldn’t matter so much if Leinster weren’t Munster’s biggest rivals and had not won nine major trophies since silverware last travelled to Limerick. It wouldn’t matter so much if there weren’t so many former Munster greats working in the media, their mere presence a reminder of brighter days in an otherwise grey landscape.

And it wouldn’t matter so much if Van Graan hadn’t mentioned in August 2018 how they aspired to be the best team in the world. Make a statement like that and it’s inevitable you will be judged against your own words. Three years on, Munster are way short of being anywhere near that goal.

And yet there is another side to this story. He has recruited well – RG Snyman and Damian De Allende were signings that wouldn’t have happened without him – but he has been desperately unfortunate with Snyman’s injury record, likewise Joey Carbery’s.

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rg-snyman-watches-from-the-bench-due-to-a-knee-injury Snyman has been cursed by injury. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

We must also remember the long stretches Chris Farrell, Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne had on the treatment table. More than anything you have to look at a quiet, untold aspect to his story. Of the first squad he selected, just eight players remain at the club. There were good pros in that match-day 23 but when contracts expired and when brighter, younger players emerged from the academy, he prioritised youth.

Yes, there are genuine gripes that he has been hesitant to promote youngsters – last year’s star player, Gavin Coombes, was given just seven games and one start in the campaign before that – but look back to the squad he inherited and look at the panel he has now. This one has way more depth and that didn’t just come from chequebook signings like Snyman, De Allende, Carbery, Beirne and Zebo – it came from Van Graan making hard decisions to allow established but limited pros to leave.

For the record, he has picked Craig Casey more times than an admittedly injury hit Carbery; Fineen Wycherley has more Munster caps than James Ryan has Leinster ones; Ben Healy has 24 Munster caps, Harry Byrne 27 appearances for Leinster. Look at the number of young players in today’s match-day 23 if you are going to look at the number of Munster appearances next to Thomas Ahern, Jack Crowley and Jack Daly’s names.

fineen-wycherley-is-tackled-by-rhys-webb Fineen Wycherley has been a big hit in red. Source: Ashley Crowden/INPHO

Remember too where Munster were 18 months prior to Van Graan’s arrival, when their European season ended in January and a sixth-place finish in the Guinness Pro12 left them without knockout rugby for the first time since 1997-98. They have reached the semi-finals in six out of eight competitions (excluding the pointless Rainbow Cup) under his watch.

Their conquerors in Europe in his four years – Toulouse, Racing and Saracens – have either won the tournament or been beaten in the final. Compare that record with say Scarlets, Glasgow, even an Ulster or indeed a Bath. But remember it isn’t Scarlets or Ulster Munster gets measured against. It’s Leinster. It’s the Munster of 2000-2011.

That’s why his decision to leave for the Rec is best for everyone. The next man in will have a much better squad to work with than what Van Graan had in 2017. He’s leaving them in a good enough place, even if they will be hoping for a coach with a more adventurous tactical mind, someone whose team doesn’t kick as much in their own half. They’ve had a Mr Reliable, the golfer who gets plenty of pars on his scorecard.

That was needed in 2017, but something else is needed now, someone prepared to take a few more risks. It’s time to bring Mike Prendergast home.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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