Hawkeye Sidekick

Johann van Graan leaves Munster Rugby for pastures new

The relationship had run its course

Rumors had circulated

The rumors have circulated for weeks on the future of Johann van Graan as Munster Rugby head coach. The links to Bath Rugby were not going away. For me, it was absolutely no surprise that van Graan has called time as head coach with the province.

The press release should come as no surprise to anyone connected with the club today. Bath Rugby the likely destination. For van Graan, this decision is an acceptance that he has brought the province as far as he can and that he needs a new challenge.

Bath Rugby if confirmed is a monster challenge given their season outings this year. Bath Rugby on both sides of the ball needs serious rework. van Graan wants a new project and this appears to tick all the boxes despite Munster Rugby offering a new two year deal.

Johann van Graan arrives to Munster Rugby in 2017

Johann van Graan has provided steady stewardship since taking over the reins from Rassie Erasmus in October 2017. Munster Rugby were ditched, left high and dry by the Erasmus departure so van Graan must be applauded for taking the role under trying circumstances.

The side advanced to the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final after an epic backs against the wall performance against Toulon in the quarter final at Thomond Park.

Andrew Conway’s solo effort the difference but Racing 92 in the semi-final exposed massive game plan flaws. 27-22 loss to Racing 92 was a reality check in the gap to bridge to get to the final as Racing 92’s fluid attacking style caught the eye in a blisteringly hot day in Bordeaux.

Guinness Pro14 ambitions were extinguished by Leinster Rugby 17-16 in the semi-final. The conservative game plan not good enough to take the victory. This would be a prevailing theme in the van Graan era.

2018-19 early season hope turns to ultimate despair

The 2018-19 season was full of optimism. The pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup were impressive with Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne contributing massively to wins over Castres, Gloucester Rugby. Exeter Chiefs fixtures were hard and uncompromising with CJ Stander immense.

Munster Rugby advanced to the quarter finals and Keith Earls’ inspired performances secured a win over Edinburgh Rugby at Murrayfield. Yet another semi-final and more bitter disappointment as Saracens controlled tempo, aerial exchanges and possession to put Munster Rugby to the sword 32-16 at the Ricoh Arena.

This semi-final loss again exposing Munster Rugby’s attacking intent. The persistence to launch box kicks to gain territorial advantage a hallmark and Saracens coped well with the tactic. Munster Rugby needed to evolve their attacking game plan.

Guinness Pro14 again saw Munster Rugby competing well in the regular season but the squad entered the playoffs tired and lethargic. Benetton Rugby should have beaten the side in Thomond Park in the quarter final. Munster Rugby were put out of their misery by Leinster Rugby in the RDS. A 24-9 loss, a performance where Munster Rugby never threatened. A subdued performance.

2019 coaching ticket changes but the same end result at the business end of the season

Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery announced their departures from the setup. Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham joined the van Graan backroom staff. A move designed to energize the organization and look to get the side over the line and win silverware.

We saw glimpses of the expansive Larkham attacking plan on show with the young kids in certain Guinness Pro14 fixtures.

However, the marquee fixtures saw the side revert back to conservative type; box kicking and one out runners to breakdown the top opponents simply not working. Frustration building amongst fans and certain media circles.

2020-21 season sees Munster Rugby lose further ground in securing silverware

Do not get me wrong, Johann van Graan provided assured leadership but I think this project reached the end of the road last year.

After a disrupted Heineken Champion Cup opening phase, Toulouse came to an empty Thomond Park last Easter. The French side exposed Munster Rugby in their pack platform and attacking fluidity in the third quarter. Munster Rugby continued to fight until the final whistle but Toulouse oozed class, more evidence that Munster Rugby were falling behind the elite European sides.

Guinness Pro14 saw the decision not to go for the typical playoff fixtures. Munster Rugby travelling to Leinster Rugby for the final. Yet more heartache and more issues in the attacking sense. 16-6 win for Leinster Rugby. The exchanges were physical but Leinster Rugby yet again showing composure and quality with ball in hand when required. Munster Rugby misfiring at the business end of the season.

The Rainbow Cup was run to introduce the South African sides into the competition. Munster Rugby again with an opportunity to stake a claim for silverware but a home loss to Connacht Rugby spelled the end of silverware for yet another season. Benetton Rugby ultimately winning the competition.

What now?

It is time for change at the club. The vacancies in the head coach and attacking coach is a glorious opportunity for the province to secure signatures of up and coming coaching talent that can elevate the side to the next level.

The academy and underage prospects have shown massive potential in their attacking play. They are chomping at the bit for game time. The Wasps performance is one where the AIL based players played without fear, on the front foot. The young kids need to be brought through now.

The roles will attract plenty of interest. Graham Rowntree as the existing pack coach could be primed for the head coaching role (if interested) and if the organization want to select in-house. Mike Prendergast’s name has been mentioned for the attacking coach role.

Ian Costello is in the setup currently and prepared the side superbly last weekend. No shortage of candidates here. Munster Rugby and IRFU have decisions to make. You are going to hear other usual names mentioned but I do not see them coming. O’Gara needs to consolidate at La Rochelle for instance.

Thanks Johann for your service to the province. Today for me was not unexpected. Both parties have reached the end of the project together. The conservative game plan style brought stability and regular season results but silverware never looked likely in this era.

The bigger sides nullified the van Graan game plan and there was no evolution of the game plan in these big games despite the side showing potential with ball in hand in other regular season games when the squad players started.

The Wasps game last weekend. The dilemma is this. How would van Graan have approached the game if present compared to what unfolded? Munster Rugby played what was in front of them last weekend. You would have seen more structure with van Graan in kicking game and territorial dominance. I don’t think you would have seen the exuberance and flair in ball carries though.

The new head coach has good potential coming through the ranks. These players have the skill set to execute an even more progressive attacking game plan with ball in hand coupled with a solid kicking and pack platform game plan. The side need to kick on once more to get to the summit.

Interesting times at Munster Rugby as to who the head coach and attacking coach will be given that they will form the vision for side long term.