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ROG the dream appointment for many Munster fans but contract complicates it

Johann van Graan will leave the province at the end of the current season.

O'Gara is under contract until 2024.
O'Gara is under contract until 2024.
Image: Dave Winter/INPHO

WHEN CONFIRMATION BROKE today that Johann van Graan will be leaving his role as Munster head coach at the end of this season, it was only natural that many of the province’s fans’ thoughts immediately turned to Ronan O’Gara.

He remains loved by the Munster supporters and given his ever-growing reputation as an intelligent, innovative and ambitious coach, there should be no surprise that many want him back home.

The complication is that he is in contract with Top 14 side La Rochelle through to 2024, having confirmed an extension to his deal there only eight months ago. We don’t know what clauses may or may not be in that contract but O’Gara underlined at the time how proud and excited he was to be staying with the French club. 

La Rochelle endured a tough start to this season amidst a very demanding fixture list but they are now bouncing back into the kind of form that led them to the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals last season. They lost both of those deciders and O’Gara admitted it has been an emotional challenge for his players getting over the pain, but it would be a surprise if they don’t compete on both fronts again this season.

Life is enjoyable for the O’Garas away from rugby in France too. In short, the 44-year-old has a good thing going and is very happy where he is. Munster fans might have to push their dream of a homecoming for ROG down the line again.

Of course, Munster need more than just a new head coach given that current ‘senior coach’ Stephen Larkham is heading back to Australia at the end of the season to join the Brumbies. He was offered a new two-year deal but declined it in order to move home with his young family.

As for van Graan, The42 understands that he had actually agreed to stay with Munster as long ago as last summer and may even have signed a new contract that was never formally announced by the IRFU.

However, it’s understood an approach from English club Bath has turned his head and he is expected to join the Premiership side ahead of next season. It seems van Graan may have invoked the same six-month notice clause that Rassie Erasmus used to return to South Africa, and that Pat Lam invoked to leave Connacht and join Bristol.

johann-van-graan Van Graan is set to join Bath. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Indeed, it’s understood that there is some frustration within the IRFU about van Graan seemingly changing his mind. The union’s performance director, David Nucifora, has backed van Graan during his time in Ireland, including giving him a new deal in 2019 when there was still a year left on his contract.

That said, the IRFU’s six-month clause works both ways. Head coaches of the provinces can walk away from their contracts if they give the union six months’ notice, but the IRFU can do the same.

Nucifora is, of course, the key man in what happens next for Munster. One part of his role is overseeing all coaching appointments in the pro game. He played a central part in Andy Friend becoming the Connacht head coach, for example, and this is one part of Nucifora’s job that has been an obvious success in recent years.

The Munster head coach role is essentially an IRFU role, so Nucifora will drive this.

Filling the assistant coach roles is thought to be Munster’s direct responsibility, although they will naturally work with the IRFU on the matter. Munster’s Professional Game Committee – which oversees this kind of stuff – includes former players John Kelly and Mick O’Driscoll, as well as CEO Ian Flanagan.

It remains to be seen if Munster need to find a third new coach. Defence specialist JP Ferreira was brought in by van Graan in 2017 and may be tempted to join him in Bath next season if they’re keen to continue their working relationship.

Forwards coach Graham Rowntree is also due to be out of contract next summer but it does seem more likely that he will stay put. The42 understands that Rowntree is enjoying working and living in Limerick, and it seems certain that any new head coach would want a forwards specialist of his expertise as part of their staff.

There is likely to be plenty of interest in the Munster roles. It may be that there is a shuffling of the role titles to head coach and attack coach, or perhaps even to director of rugby and head coach. Munster and the IRFU have plenty of scope to set out exactly the structure they want.

The province has a brilliant stadium, outstanding support, a squad featuring plenty of international players, many exciting young prospects, and also the ability to attract world-class players from outside Ireland. There are heavy expectations that come with coaching Munster but they surely won’t be short of interested parties.

mike-prendergast-interviewed-before-the-game Mike Prendergast is highly rated. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Already, there are many names floating around in connection with Munster, many of them ex-players with the province who have moved into coaching.

Paul O’Connell is currently adding a huge amount to the Ireland set-up as forwards coach but he is contracted through to the 2023 World Cup and has previously indicated that club coaching is not exactly his cup of tea. More recently, O’Connell said he would actually ideally like a little more face time with players than international coaches get, but he’s happy where he is. Like O’Gara, that dream for Munster fans seems unlikely.

Mike Prendergast is one name being strongly linked with Munster. Currently attack coach with Racing 92 in France, those links are around the same role with the southern province.

It’s understood that Prendergast is not out of contract at the end of this season but Munster could make a play to bring him home. Whether he’s interested in leaving Paris, where he and his family are thought to be happy, is unknown.

Jerry Flannery helped Harlequins to a Premiership title as their forwards coach last season, having decided to leave Munster in 2019, turning down a new contract offer. Felix Jones is now a World Cup and Lions series winner with South Africa having done the same.

James Coughlan is working as Toulon’s forwards coach – having initially joined as defence coach – and enjoying a growing reputation, although it seems he too would be seen as a possible assistant coach rather than the main boss.

And, of course, Declan Kidney is still in the game as director of rugby at London Irish. The most successful Munster boss of them all, he is very qualified if the province decide they do want an experienced director of rugby to work with a young, progressive head coach. 

There are other young Irish coaches now working abroad, including former Ireland U20 coach Noel McNamara, whose name has been discussed within Munster as a possible attack specialist. However, he has only recently joined the Sharks in South Africa and may be keen to take a proper stab at that job.

If Munster are to look at internal options for the new coaching ticket, academy manager Ian Costello is an obvious name to consider having done a brilliant job over the past fortnight as van Graan and co. isolated and has already been in the Munster senior coaching set-up. But Costello has only recently returned to the province to make positive progress in his role with the academy.

There will be interest from lots of non-Irish coaches too, obviously.

Milton Haig, a New Zealander who previously coached Georgia and is now working in Japan, is one name already circulating. Rowntree was his forwards coach with Georgia at the 2019 World Cup.

Munster’s connections to South Africa seem likely to result in candidates from there too, with Rassie Erasmus having been the one to recommend van Graan to the province. Perhaps he will open up his contacts book again as he twiddles his thumbs while banned from his role as SA Rugby director of rugby.

There is plenty of road left in this one and whatever happens next, Munster are heading for more great change on the coaching front ahead of next season. 

Originally published at 19.25

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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