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At the end of Johann van Graan’s reign, Munster’s prop roster is in a sorry state

By Brendan Fanning
Munster head coach Johann van Graan during the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter-Final match between Munster and Toulouse at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

When it became clear last Saturday night that Toulouse would be trekking home and then back to Dublin just five days later, swapping opponents in red for ones in blue, you wondered if they would tear up their plane tickets and stay put for the week.

Travel is high on the list of pet hates for athletes in competition. In a game of small margins, having to sacrifice preparation or downtime for a bus, an airport, a plane, another bus and a hotel room where you simply might not settle, is draining on mind and body.

Then you thought how Munster would happily fly long haul economy if it meant getting another day out in a competition where they are part of its fabric. It had been a tremendous game in the perfect setting, fitting alongside other great days out for Munster.

They played right on the edge and for the first time in an age their fans felt the team were in their rightful place. The remarkable thing was they were surviving there without a scrum.

For a while you felt that they would get away with it – having come back from 14-7 down to establish a 24-14 lead in the last quarter, maybe it would be one of those days where scrums would be in relatively short supply, so chances for Toulouse to do damage would be limited.

Then with less than six minutes left, trailing by three but with Rory Arnold back from the bin, they packed down for a scrum in Munster’s left corner.

A serious shunt gave them a penalty, their third scrum penalty of the game. Instead of opting for what Muster dreaded at that exact moment - another scrum – they asked Thomas Ramos to level the game with a tricky kick, which he nailed.

After five years as Munster head coach Johann van Graan will be well acquainted with the importance of a scrum if you want to win trophies.

He also knew well, in advance, the restraints of working in the Irish system, where producing players for the Ireland side is part of the provinces’ remit.

So you can’t just go out and buy four South African props and tick the scrum box.

But at the end of his reign Munster’s prop roster is in a sorry state.

Stephen Archer is the starting tight head, which is both a testament to the durability of the 34-year-old – 247 games for the province at the sharp end of such a punishing sport is a great achievement – and the failure of the system.

His replacement, John Ryan, is heading elsewhere at the end of the season.

That South African import Keynan Knox and Hawaian tight head Roman Salanoa are not kicking the door down long since is hard to fathom.

Saturday was especially difficult for Van Graan, to be so close to a semi-final spot. He is a hard worker and surely everyone believes he is desperate to sign off with some material sign of success.

But does anyone believe that leaving him front of house was the right call once he triggered the six months exit clause on his contract?

The escape hatches on these deals are designed to release pressure, not flood the place with anxiety. Instead of greeting the news that another Munster coaching appointment was going south surely the sensible option was to focus on the silver lining, not the cloud.

If Johann van Graan had been a conservative, unimaginative and unsuccessful coach for four and half years surely the time to rescue the situation was the morning after he told CEO Ian Flanagan he was packing his bags.

Flanagan had two options: offer to pay him off there and then, or ask him nicely to stay in the background and hand over the head coaching duties to the obvious heir apparent, Graham Rowntree, initially on a caretaker basis. What they ended up with was limbo land.

This was complicated by the inevitable exit of Van Graan acolytes alongside the head coach towards Bath: defence coach JP Fereira, flanker Chris Cloete and outside back Matt Gallagher.

Meantime in England’s west country a handful of their coaching staff were, and still are, marking time until Van Graan’s arrival.

You’d wonder if the two clubs could not have found a discreet accommodation to optimise the time left on contracts that were counting down.

As for Toulouse, yes they did consider in advance the option of staying in Dublin for the week, and yes the prospect of skipping a heavy travel day on Thursday was attractive.

So, however, was getting back soon after midnight last Saturday to Toulouse-Blagnac airport, sleeping in their own beds and not having to nail down alternative training facilities.

And that’s before you get to the cost/availability of a decent hotel in Dublin for circa 50 people.

They had a two-days mini camp in the Pyrenees at the start of last week, after the Top 14 game against La Rochelle, which facilitated a lot of work.

Mentally it gave the players cause to feel prepared for whatever was coming. It allowed them to be accurate in a few key areas, if not the breakdown then certainly at the scrum and off the tee.

That’s what you need at the sharp end of big competitions. That’s what makes them champions.

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