Munster had a break from their Guinness PRO14 programme this past weekend to start their Champions Cup campaign after a solid take-off to the season.
Their only blemish in the Guinness PRO14 so far is a 40-16 defeat against the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Despite this, they top Conference B with five wins in six games and hold a three-point lead over Welsh outfit, the Scarlets.
With all their Rugby World Cup players back in action after losing up to 12 players at a point to national duty in Japan, the team is back to full strength, and after falling in both Semi-finals last year, Van Graan, wants to go one better this season.
“To play without the Irish players in the early part of the season was a massive opportunity for us,” said Van Graan, who spent nine years coaching at the Bulls and six at the Springboks before moving across the equator to replace SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, at Munster.
“To have as many as 12 players going to Japan with the national team was fantastic for a couple of reasons. Obviously it is good for the club that we provide so many international players, and then their absence also gave us a chance to blood some home grown players.
“In the pre-season we incorporated the guys from the Academy in all our preparations, and we gave a lot of them a taste of what lies ahead in friendly matches against London Irish and Connacht.
“They also got chances in games against the Dragons and the Isuzu Southern Kings in the Guinness PRO14.
“The other guys will come back now, but we are pleased with the way the players who stood in performed in their absence. It was a chance to improve our depth, and we all know that great teams have great depth.”
Similar to Erasmus, who served as Munster’s Director of Rugby and head coach for two seasons before returning home to take up the role at SA Rugby, Van Graan believes his time in Ireland has served as a massive learning curve, which has improved him immeasurably as a coach.
“I’m a long way from home, but the people of Munster have been brilliant,” said Van Graan. “I left South Africa on the right footing, so I still have good contacts there.
“After many years as an assistant at the Bulls and the Springboks I got an opportunity to be head coach at one of the best clubs in the world, a club with a great heritage and long history. It has been brilliant to be involved in what we have at Munster, and personally it has allowed me to grow.
“I got the chance over a period of time to work with some really brilliant players in South Africa, guys like Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, but now I have a chance to expand my horizons by coaching players such as Peter O’Mahony, who has led Ireland, and other players from both Europe and the southern hemisphere.
“I also get to pit myself against coaches from all over the world and who come to Europe from so many different rugby cultures, guys like Dave Rennie, the former Chiefs coach, at Glasgow, and Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh. Then there are guys like Mark McCall, the coach of Saracens, who we play against in the Champions Cup.”
Van Graan has been satisfied with his record of guiding Munster to the Semi-finals in both the Guinness PRO14 and the Champions Cup, but he knows that club’s supporters will be expecting a step up from last season. In both these instances the teams that beat them went on to win the respective competitions.
“At a place like Munster there is always expectation, the stakeholders expect you to be in a play-off game, and they expect you to do well,” said the coach. “But it was the same at the Bulls and the Boks. That is why you coach. And the brilliant thing is I am not alone, I have some of the legends of the game around me, and also a brilliant player group.
“There’s always pressure, but as a group we embrace it. It feels like we are on the brink; we must just take the next step.”