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Bath-bound van Graan accused of 'ruining' some Munster players

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Ex-Ireland skipper Keith Wood had read Munster the riot act, accusing them of playing a “turgid nonsense” style of rugby and suggesting they would be better off if they released the Bath-bound Johann van Graan now and handed the job of head coach to assistant Stephen Larkham on a temporary basis before he takes over at the Brumbies at the end of the season. 

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Munster are currently seventh in the United Rugby Championship, nine points behind leaders Leinster who have played one match more than their Irish rivals. They are also two wins from two in the Heineken Champions Cup but Wood, who was part of the 1999/2000 squad that reached the club’s first European final, has become increasingly disenchanted with the limited style of rugby Munster are producing under van Graan. 

Rather than take up a two-year contract extension, van Graan agreed in December to an end-of-season switch to Bath in England. Since that deal was announced, Munster struggled to defeat Castres at home in Europe and they then lost last Saturday at Connacht in the URC, a defeat that infuriated Wood who has demanded a change in thinking for this weekend’s clash with Ulster or a change in the coaching set-up through to the end of the season.     

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Illustrating Munster’s limited approach last weekend in Galway were the passing statistics. They only made 45 passes compared to Connacht’s 170 and scrum-half Craig Casey made just 24 compared to 86 by his Connacht counterpart Kieran Marmion. Wood does punditry for Newstalk, the Irish radio station, and is usually mild-mannered in his critique but he went for the jugular in his latest appearance on the Off The Ball show and demanded Munster tackle the van Graan situation with immediate effect. 

“There is no point talking about Munster’s attack, that doesn’t exist at the present moment of time and we are beginning to ruin some of the players and I’m finding it incredibly hard to watch and if there is a disruption with the coaches, well I’d rather the coaches went if that was the case than stay and play that level of turgid nonsense,” insisted Wood. 

“I look at someone like Casey who I think has been overhyped and I would definitely overhype him because he is unbelievably exciting and his ability to get to the ball and to flash the ball is a mark of what you want to have in the game. The game changes and moves in cycles and has changed again to a really, really fast-paced game and Munster are slowing it down more than everyone else is speeding it up so Casey is now slowing down to get there and I don’t ever want to see that in his game. 

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“He is a small nine, he is a nine that has to pick the ball the second it hits the ground and hit his ten or hit a forward running onto it but there is a constant slowing down… and it is so unbelievably lacklustre. The lack of ambition to get over before half-time with pick and drive when there was one man down and there was time and space on both sides and nothing happened. 

“There was no thought process in it so the things I find frustrating still frustrate, that Munster tries to play a style that if you have a huge pack of forwards you can play. Munster do not have a huge pack of forwards and slowing down the game is of no value. You’d rather see guys play with a little bit of joy and not plod around the field. I looked at (Gavin) Coombes, who I am a huge fan of, and he just looked one-paced.”

What would Wood do? “I would say some like Larkham, who is going at the end of the season, I’d say, ‘Steve, there is an expectation that you can make players play. If you are given the temporary head coach role until the end of the season can you make that happen? Can you see if you can change Munster into doing something that can excite a crowd?’ 

“I like van Graan and I get on fine with him but his comment after (the loss) was that this was a derby and was going to be very tough. Well, that is a lovely comment if you have shown some effort but there was no effort shown really, no thinking went into that game… it is very hard. There is a lot of really good players there. I don’t think they are world-beaters but I think whatever new coach that comes into Munster need to be a coach that looks at the players they have at their disposal and improve them and have to play a style that suits them because at the present moment of time I don’t think either of those things is true.”

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Wood didn’t let up in his criticism about his native province. “Connacht are playing trying to win, not afraid of losing. When I look at Munster at the moment it is almost can you grind out the win? The discipline was very poor and the energy, I don’t know what is going on in the coaching set-up, I don’t know what is going on in the training sessions, but if that is the extent of the first big game after Christmas and that is the energy that is brought to it then something isn’t right, whatever that it is. Whether it is because the players think that the coach is gone or the coach isn’t able to get it across. 

“There isn’t going to be wholesale changes in players, that is just not going to happen. There is a rumour mill that a lot of the South African guys that came over with him will go at the end of this year as well. I don’t know whether that is true either and in some respects, I hope it isn’t but you are looking at a game and saying, ‘C’mon, think, show, play, do something, go at pace’. 

“The manner in which Munster played at the weekend is the manner in which Munster have tried to play against Leinster over the last number of years, against Saracens in the years before that which is to try and have a limited style to stay in the game and it hasn’t been good enough further down the line. It’s now not good enough for a team that isn’t at the top of the tree, and Connacht are not at the top of the tree compared to Leinster and Saracens. 

“The point to van Graan is are you willing to throw out that slowing down the ball because that is what Munster do, they slow it down. There was the benefit of the doubt in previous conversations because you were looking for a change and there were different circumstances that happen but we have started to see young players come into the system, they get a run and do very well and then we don’t see them for three weeks and that is not right either. When a player plays well he holds the jersey. 

“Change the thinking or change the coach, that is what I would be saying. I don’t know (if they would do it). It is not something that usually happens (mid-season) but what we are looking for is a lot of young Munster players beginning to come into the system and they need to be able to play but they also need to be able to grow in the game.

“I just feel the game moves in cycles… and it has changed in the last 18 months to become an awful lot faster, a lot more risk-taking and a lot more opportunity for different things to happen. It doesn’t always work but we have seen it work in Connacht’s history more recently than in Munster’s history as they managed to win a trophy (in 2016) by playing a style with more limited resources that just excited the hell out of everybody.”

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