POSSIBLY the biggest surprise around the recent announcement that Johann van Graan is set to depart his role as Munster head coach at the end of the season is the fact that so many people have expressed their disappointment at the news.
There is no denying that Van Graan has done a decent job in his time at the helm at Thomond Park, but as Ger Gilroy of Newstalk stated since the news of his impending exit broke, “he has been grand. Johann van Grand."
Van Graan has been the Munster head coach since October 2017.
By the end of the year he will have been in the post for a lengthy four and a half years.
By all accounts he was being offered a two-year contract extension at the end of this campaign, but he himself decided to head to pastures new over in Bath.
The question really does have to be asked, did we really need six and a half years of JVG rugby at Munster?
The two charges that regularly get thrown at van Graan are his lack of silverware in his four years, and counting, at Munster, and the conservative style of play that has come up well short over and over again when the gun was put to the head in season defining games.
Munster reached three domestic league semi-finals in a row under the South African, but lost to arch rivals Leinster on each occasion, and in his fourth year they reached the final, where they once again faced their Dublin rivals.
Munster failed to land a glove in that match, as their no-risk style proved no problem for Leo Cullen’s charges, with Munster losing 16-6.
The rivalry has gotten very one-sided under van Graan’s watch.
The European record in his time pretty much continued along the same vein as what came in the years before he arrived.
Munster had reached the semi-final a few months before he joined, losing to Saracens at the Aviva Stadium on that occasion, and the next two season’s saw two further semi-final exits, but in truth Munster never looked like reaching the final in either of those years, and last year eventual champions Toulouse were too strong in a brilliant last 16 encounter that finished 33-40 at Thomond Park.
Arguably the biggest positive from the van Graan era is the fact that the Munster squad looks far stronger now than it did when the South African native took over in 2017.
The recruitment in the years since has been top notch, and if anything van Graan has been terribly unlucky that big signings such as Joey Carbery, RG Snyman, Chris Farrell and Tadhg Beirne have suffered some extremely frustrating long term injuries in recent campaigns that have seriously damaged Munster’s silverware prospects.
And while the squad may have improved during van Graan’s time, a lot of that is down to the emergence of quality homegrown players within the province, and in particular the emergence of the West Cork Mafia.
When Munster lost the 2018 Pro12 semi-final to Leinster in May of 2018 by 16-15 they did it with a bunch of players that are largely a combination of current and former players.
That game was three and a half years ago, yet the only player who has emerged in the interim, who would be guaranteed a starting spot if Munster were playing a big game in the morning, is Skibbereen’s Gavin Coombes.
The other starters would be either players who played, and lost, in 2018, or big signings since.
Others likes Craig Casey, John Hodnett and Ben Healy are now there or thereabouts, but they are still not the first-choice starters in their respective positions, so while it can be stated that a lot of young Munster players have got their starts under van Graan, you simply cannot say that he has backed youth either, as the evidence to support that case does not exist.
Munster’s lacklustre victory over Castres at the weekend was almost perfect timing, as it illustrated the limitations of a van Graan coached team. Despite having the best centre on the planet in Damian can Graan, possibly Ireland’s two best wingers in Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, and an extremely exciting young full back in Patrick Campbell, Munster played dull, uninspiring rugby, and not for the first time we were left scratching our heads and asking “what are Munster actually trying to do here?”
So, it should never have been a question as to whether Munster should keep van Graan on.
Keeping on van Graan would have merely been a means of maintaining the current status quo.
What is it they say about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Every new coaching appointment is a gamble, but it was high-time Munster gambled and they should have made a change now.