Van Graan exit ain’t the mess it appears for Munster Rugby but questions remain

Van Graan exit ain’t the mess it appears for Munster Rugby but questions remain

The end-of-season departure of Munster head coach Johann van Graan so soon after his assistant Stephen Larkham confirmed a similar exit timeline suggests a haemorrhaging province in an unhealthy state of flux.

“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?,” Deputy Wendell says to Tommy Lee Jones in ‘No Country for Old Men’.

“If it ain’t, it’ll do till a mess gets here.” 

In fact, it’s nothing as deleterious as that.

Firstly, those within the walls of Munster Rugby suspected for some time that Van Graan was approaching the back end of his time in Munster. The link with Bath in the English Premiership – where benefactors happily plough funds into their passion – only served to confirm as much.

Larkham’s loss was, in at least one respect, a bigger blow insofar as he was a viable option to step up and into Van Graan’s shoes. The opening for a head coach job at the Brumbies in his native Canberra was fortuitous timing as the Wallaby was already grappling with an awkward family decision on when to return to Australia.

One of his kids is now at college-going age and the whereabouts of that, allied to the fact that they hadn’t been able to see their extended family at home due to Covid travel restrictions, has undoubtedly hastened Larkham’s departure from Limerick. All things being equal, he would have liked to stay longer in Ireland.

However, Van Graan’s decision not to renew with Munster merits deliberation before everyone gallops onto the succession stakes. The 41-year-old, who replaced Rassie Erasmus four years ago, has been offered a contract extension up to 2023, so Munster are by no means hooshing the South African out the door.

“While I was at advanced stages in the contract process earlier this year, I took a step back and reconsidered my options, prioritising what’s best for my family, myself, and Munster Rugby,” the South African said. “I am now into my fifth season with this group and in putting Munster first I believe it’s the right decision for me to call time on my contribution and step away at the end of this season.” 

That the former Springbok assistant believes now is a good time to leave town could be interpreted as a lack of belief on his part in Munster’s ability to end their trophyless years. That Van Graan fears that the gap between Munster and Leinster isn’t closing as fast as he would like, or indeed anytime soon. That with budgets tightening, marquee signings that make the difference in the key moments, like Damien de Allende or RG Snyman, may not be financially feasible in the short to medium term. That Munster may have to change model and revert to unearthing local gems, some of which we saw in Coventry last Sunday. If that is the case – and for sure, it was a red-letter Sunday for the academy – the Munster ‘famine’, certainly in European Cup terms may have a while in it yet. He may well be right. Management’s exit interviews with Van Graan and Larkham would be insightful.

In relation to who comes in next season, at least Van Graan’s and Larkham’s summer departures remove complication and clear the decks for the province in terms of the construction of a new management package – importantly too, it removes any potential ideological complications for a prospective coach (re)joining the province.

Racing 92 coach Mike Prendergast. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

If, for instance, Mike Prendergast was to return to his native province as assistant to a new head coach – let’s say Graham Rowntree – the former scrum-half is starting on his terms rather than knitting into an existing management structure.

It won’t take long for a section of Munster following to vent support for a more indigenous coaching ticket, and it is something that the likes of Ronan O’Gara has proffered an opinion on in these pages. The late, lamented Garrett Fitzgerald pledged that Munster would always scan the rugby world – such as is it – for the best coaching option. One difference with that approach these days – Munster-born options are more plentiful now than they were then.

One bookmaker Tuesday shortened the odds to 10/11 on a fairytale O’Gara return from La Rochelle to his first rugby love. Similarly, Paul O’Connell’s phone has been beeping relentlessly all day, one presumes, wondering, ‘well, would ya..?’ 

Would either of them realistically consider a Munster return at this juncture? Highly unlikely, one imagines. 

O’Connell is making serious progress in the Ireland set-up and must be seen as a potential post-2023 replacement for Andy Farrell if the Englishman was to call it a day. Similarly, O’Gara’s stock in world rugby nowada

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