Johann van Graan has long been considered a student of the game by people who pay attention. Long before he arrived at the High-Performance Centre last November, Van Graan had a burgeoning reputation as a progressive rugby mind who had potential that belied his low profile within the Springbok set up.
Van Graan had been a member of the Springboks set up since 2012 when he was appointed as a technical advisor and analyst by Heyneke Meyer, but before long the hard-working, video-obsessed analyst had grown into an expanded role as assistant coach.
The nature of his appointment as a technical advisor to the Springboks – an obsession with detail, video analysis and in-game statistics – and his subsequent rise to greater responsibility at test level should tell you everything you need to know about his approach to the game and his understanding of it.
That kind of progression from video to on-field sounds like a small thing but the gap he leaped there – at the highest level of the game – doesn’t happen all that often. It was this approach, as well as his charismatic aura and way with people, that convinced Munster that he was the right man to fill the gap left by the departing Rassie Erasmus. Everything I’ve seen from Van Graan since has shown that the decision to hire him was the right decision.
First, a small indicator of the man from the bits you probably haven’t seen. At every press conference, post-match or pre-game, Van Graan takes the time to shake the hand of every media guy attending. It’s a small thing like I said, but it shows you the quality of the man. That approach is duplicated all through his process and that care, attention and extra-mile attitude was always going to be vitally important during this preseason just gone.
Munster, in the aftermath of last season, had some work to do to progress on two semi-final defeats and that progress would mainly be seen in how they attacked, both off of the set piece and on phase possession. Pre-season is the only time of year when you can program the kind of attacking upgrades that any side would need to crack that glass ceiling.
You could see that Van Graan, Jones, Flannery and Ferreira were adding as many extras as they could from the turn of the year on but that’s a tough ask with the week to week grind of the rugby season. Pre-season, with two months of match free preparation, is the perfect way to build in the software upgrades that a top attack needs.
Trying to duplicate Leinster’s style of play – and accompanying success – isn’t easy, or everyone would be doing it. Munster can’t, and shouldn’t, be looking to duplicate the way of playing and Van Graan and Jones are smart enough to find a way of their own. Leinster’s game – to boil it down to the bone basics – is based off their ability to cycle through multiple pods of heavy forward ball carriers before using Sexton and Ringrose to find the isolation.
Munster don’t have the same kind of roster of ball carriers – bar some outstanding heavy carriers in Stander, Kilcoyne and Kleyn – but what they do have is a forward pack with really good handling ability and a group of outside backs that might even challenge Leinster for lethality. With players like Earls, Sweetnam, Conway, Wootton, Haley, even Nash, Daly, Coombes, O’Mahony and Fitzgerald, Munster have back three stocks that can challenge any side.
When you have a resource, you use it, and the work we saw against the Cheetahs on Saturday would suggest that kind of wide angle game is where Munster are going this season. Especially when you consider that Munster’s pack were passing the ball incredibly well as a means of widening the overall attacking profile and giving the likes of Hanrahan, Scannell and Sweetnam multiple chances to attack the Cheetahs’ outside edge.
If Munster are to be successful this season, it’ll be through how well they can attack that edge and how well they can use their forwards to get there. This weekend’s challenge away to Glasgow will be a stiff challenge but if they can manage it in the cauldron of Scotstoun, they can do it almost anywhere.