Another season, another Munster coach heading for the exit. Or two I should say, and counting, as it’s probably a safe bet that JP Ferreira will follow Johann van Graan out the door. The new boss will be Munster’s fifth in 10 years. Equally alarming is the turnover of assistant coaches in the same period, eight of whom will have come and gone when Stephen Larkham heads home to Australia.
The general reaction was one of surprise when the news was announced yesterday. The word from camp was that Johann was staying put for another two or three years. Whether that would have been in the best interests of the club was up for debate, but clearly, Munster were banking on him remaining where he was.
The chopping and changing of coaching tickets has been a major issue for the province in the last decade. Even now, as rugby migrates further towards the norms of professional football and coaching positions become more insecure, there is an acceptance that change can be good, but too much change is bad.
For any professional outfit, five head coaches in a decade is too much. Let alone for a side that has serious aspirations of winning silverware and competing with the best of the best. But having consistency in personnel isn’t a good enough reason on its own to continue with a project that has not achieved the success it sought to achieve.
It’s not like Johann has just arrived in the door. This is his fifth season in charge and while the Munster board might believe a change was better avoided on this occasion, enough time has passed for his tenure to be properly assessed. Five seasons is a long enough time to get an idea for how far a head coach is going to take a side, and in my opinion, Munster have been taken as far as he can take them.
Coaches are often judged harshly. By fans, by players, by their colleagues in the same office; it’s an unforgiving job, and it was never an avenue I had any intention of exploring myself. Objectively speaking though, it’s fair to judge a coach against the place the team was in when he took over the reins. And if we do so now, we can’t argue that the team has kicked on from where it was in the latter part of 2017.
Rassie left for South Africa early on in what would have been his second season in charge. His first had been remarkable; 29 wins out of 32 ordinary season games, a league final and a European semi-final. That was always going to be hard act for the new arrival to follow. To Johann’s credit, he steered Munster to two European semis in a row.
But when they got to that point, it hasn’t felt like they were any closer to getting the semi-final monkey off the back for the first time since 2008. And today, after two consecutive seasons without making a European quarter-final, they are further away from a European Cup than they were in 2017, if anything.
Munster still do not have a recognisable, consistent playing philosophy. We have been treated to the mesmerising, expansive rugby we saw away to Scarlets in round three of this season’s league, and the dull, uninventive, pedestrian stuff we saw against the Ospreys two weeks later.
Once again, the scramble is on to find suitable replacements. Many will speculate about Ronan O’Gara or Paul O’Connell coming back home and leading the club to glory, but I can’t see either of them having a desire to change their current situations.
Mike Prendergast should be top of the list of people to approach to take over the attack. Mike is among the most highly regarded coaches in the Top 14, and the fact that clubs were queueing up to get him on board after he worked with relegated teams two seasons in a row is the perfect illustration of that. He is a talented coach, excellent communicator and most importantly, knows Munster like the back of his hand.
He knows the club game, having played and coached successfully in it for years after his professional playing career ended. He has a proven track record of taking players of every age, at every level, and honing them into the finished article. He would be a hugely popular appointment with the players and supporters and for me, it’s a no brainer.
As for who might do the main job, I really don’t know at this point. But out of all the new head coaches that have been at the helm in the last decade, I feel that this appointment is the most critical. Munster are two to three years away from the moment where the likes of Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Dave Kilcoyne will start to either retire or move on. The current blend of youth and experience is capable of doing something very special in the coming years. But they need the right men at the helm to guide them through the glass ceiling they seem to have been stuck pushing against for so long. First, they have a season to finish. And just maybe, after the fairytale of last Sunday, Johann van Graan will prove me wrong and take the lads all the way. I’ll be a happy boy if he does.