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Van Graan has all the key ingredients to take Munster in new direction

Tony Ward

Wise men say, only fools rush in. Well he's only been here a fortnight and already I think we can safely say that whatever else, a fool Johann van Graan is most certainly not.

I was interested in how the new Munster coach would handle his first interview in his new position ahead of the Zebre game a fortnight ago.

I was impressed, not because of the articulate nature of his delivery - although it helps - but the fact that twice he put a very heavy emphasis to the media of this change in coaching structure being not about him but about the club.

I still can't get my head around the 'club' thing, but his point was delivered with clout and without equivocation.

His opening two games in Parma and Cork were as soft a landing as he could get, given that Zebre were depleted with so many involved in the Test against the Springboks the same weekend. There is no comparison between Irish and Italian back-up resources.

The Ospreys also had to deal with their Welsh absentees, although even at full strength in their current morass and with confidence low I'm not sure it would have made a difference.

All that said, back-to-back wins, including one on the road, is good for morale and camaraderie as they get to know the new man. And him them.

It shouldn't have come to a situation whereby the head coach is only getting to know his players "slap bang in the middle of going into Europe".

But it is what it is, with the next fortnight in opposition to Matt O'Connor and the Leicester Tigers followed by another intense period of inter-provincial rugby set to familiarise the players with the deep end.

To be a top coach you must have self-belief. Self-belief as distinct from arrogance. No coach, not Steve Hansen, not Joe Schmidt, not even Eddie Jones, knows it all.

As the new Munster head coach rightly concedes: "Nobody knows everything, nobody's got the secret formula, and I'd like to have as much expertise coming in to make this a winning team."

I suggest that Declan Kidney be at the head of the line as one of those former coaches to be given an ear and a cuppa.

Talk can be cheap, with the onus on Van Graan to back up his words with the appropriate actions. And from what I'm hearing, it sounds like he will.

It's not like he's inheriting a lost cause with Munster second only to Leinster in terms of immediate potential.

The one ongoing issue I have is behind the scrum and specifically in midfield. I do not accept this almost unwritten law for Munster rugby that in order to succeed it must have a centre combination of little and large, of door-breaker and lock-picker.

Trevor Halstead (alongside John Kelly) was a powerhouse central to that Heineken Cup breakthrough in 2006, but the Lifeimi Mafi/Rua Tiopki combination two years on wasn't half-bad either.

Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll weren't exactly freaks of nature, yet as an effective pairing there has been none better in green.

I emphasise that point because, over the last fortnight, watching Chris Farrell in a much more creative role for Ireland and both Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold for Munster, the material is there for Felix Jones, with his head coach's blessing, to move Munster away from the door-bashing psyche that in my view has hindered rather than helped the province through the transition to professionalism.

Of course there's a need for physicality, but look what that obsession has done to French rugby and then tell me there isn't another way.

Arnold, Scannell and Farrell (when he returns from injury and on the very definite evidence of the Argentinian game) offer substantial scope to take Munster in a new direction.

Not quite down the Rob Penney path of total change but certainly well on that road.

Even with Simon Zebo on the move there is pace and try-scoring ability in abundance down the outside channels.

Take your pick from Zebo, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Darren Sweetnam, Ronan O'Mahony and the fast-emerging Alex Wootton.

All that's required is the key inside to unlock that pace.

The most immediate concerns for Van Graan are his choice at out-half (and for me that call would be Ian Keatley), plus cover in the front-row, chiefly at one and three.

The back-row in Cork were outstanding, with the under-rated Robin Copeland again displaying his wares while Jack O'Donoghue looked equally at home on the blindside flank as he does when wearing eight.

But the revelation was Chris Cloete, who not only looks like Michael Hooper but plays like the great Wallaby too.

Cloete is built like a brickhouse and, on this early evidence, looks a real challenger to Tommy O'Donnell.

Conor Oliver can put himself about a bit too. Jean Kleyn shores up the second-row alongside Billy Holland in the absence of Donnacha Ryan.

While they aren't near Leinster's strength in depth, that depth is growing. The next five weeks will tell a tale. Welcome on board, Johann.

Belfast Telegraph

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