Former Blue Bulls and Springbok assistant coach Johan van Graan is now into his third season as head coach of Munster in the Guinness PRO 14 and is eager to take the next step in both competitions that his team is involved in and get the feel of silverware.
Munster break from their PRO14 programme this weekend to start their Champions Cup campaign against Ospreys at Liberty Stadium in Swansea after a solid start to their PRO 14 season. The 40-16 loss to the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in the third round remains the only blemish for the Irish side, who top Conference B with five wins in six games, three points ahead of Welsh team, Scarlets.
It is important to note that while the Cheetahs were excellent in what was their departing coach Franco Smith’s last game in charge, Munster weren’t at full strength for their trip to South Africa, where they also played the Isuzu Southern Kings. Van Graan had as many as 12 players missing to the Ireland challenge at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The team has been strengthened for the opening salvo of Champions Cup action, but Van Graan, who wants to go one better in both competitions after seeing his team fall in two semi-finals last year, reckons that the weeks where Munster played without the services of Irish internationals like skipper Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Jean Kleyn, Conor Murray and others were good for creating squad depth.
“To play without the Irish players in the early part of the season was a massive opportunity for us,” said Van Graan, who spent nine years coaching at the Bulls and six at the Springboks before moving across the equator to take current Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ place at Munster.
“To have as many as 12 players going with the national team was fantastic for a couple of reasons. Obviously it is good for the club that we provide so many international players, and then their absence also gave us a chance to blood some home grown players. In the pre-season we incorporated the guys from the Academy in all our preparations, and we gave a lot of them a pre-season taste in friendly matches against London Irish and Connacht.
“Then they and others also got chances in games against the Dragons and the Kings in the PRO 14 competition. The other guys will now come back at the start of the Champions Cup but we are pleased with the way the players who stood in went in their absence. It was a chance to improve our depth, and we all know that great teams have great depth.”
Like Bok coach Erasmus, who served as Munster director of rugby and head coach for two seasons before returning home to take up the directorship of South African rugby, Van Graan believes his time in Ireland has been a massive learning curve that has improved him immeasurably as a coach.
“I am a long way from home but the people of Munster have been brilliant and I did leave South Africa on the right footing, so I still have good contacts there,” he said.
“After many years as an assistant at the Bulls and the Springboks I got an opportunity to be head coach at one of the best clubs in the world, a club with a great heritage and long history. It has been brilliant to be involved in something like what we have at Munster, and it has grown me personally.
“I got the chance over a period of time to work with some really brilliant players in South Africa, guys like Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, but now I have a chance to expand my horizons by coaching players such as Peter O’Mahony, who has led Ireland, and other players from both Europe and the southern hemisphere.
“I also get to pit myself against coaches from all over the world and who come to Europe from so many different rugby cultures, guys like Dave Rennie, the former Chiefs coach, at Glasgow, and Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh. Then there are guys like Mark McCall, the coach of Saracens, who we play against in the Champions Cup.”
Van Graan has been satisfied with his record of taking Munster to the semi-finals of both PRO14 and the Champions Cup, but knows that club supporters will be expecting a step up from last season’s exits in the semi-final rounds to first Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final and then Leinster in the PRO14 semi-final. In both instances the team that beat Munster went on to win the respective competitions.
“At a place like Munster there is always expectation, the stakeholders expect you to be in a play-off game, they expect you to do well. But it was the same at the Bulls and the Boks. That is why you coach. And the brilliant thing is I am not alone, I have some of the legends of the game around me (former Wallaby flyhalf Stephen Larkham is one of Van Graan’s assistants), and also a brilliant player group. There’s always pressure but as a group we embrace it. It feels like we are on the brink, we must just take the next step.”