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Hooper's 'big decision' reaction to van Graan's Bath appointment

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper has spoken for the first time since the English club confirmed the appointment of Munster boss Johann van Graan as the new head coach for the 2022/23 season. The still-rookie director has overseen a brutal start to the current campaign, Bath losing all nine Gallagher Premiership matches so far and they followed that dreadful domestic run with last Saturday’s Champions Cup hammering by Leinster. 

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They brought in ex-Saracens CEO Nick Griffiths at the end of October to conduct a root and branch review of the club’s set-up and aside from the urgent need to appoint a defence coach, something confirmed on Tuesday with the recruitment of Brent Janse van Rensburg, it also emerged that bringing in a new head coach was a necessity. 

Aside from reaching the semi-finals of the post-lockdown 2019/20 Premiership season, Hooper’s reign as director of rugby since his appointment in 2019 has left much to be desired results-wise and it has now led to Bath recruiting van Graan five years after a 2016 approach for the then Springboks assistant came to nought.  

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Now, though, they have got their timing right, van Graan reportedly so keen to move to England that he invoked a break clause in a newly inked contract extension that was set to keep him at Munster until summer 2024. 

The only surprise about van Graan’s appointment is that Hooper hasn’t paid a price for his involvement in the mess that the 2021/22 season has been so far, although the Bath media statement accompanying their new head coach announcement did state that van Graan “will hold full responsibility for our game”.

What that precisely means was something put to Hooper at his first media briefing since the midweek development that Bath had secured the services of van Graan. “In the head coach/director of rugby set-up, the head coach has responsibility for the 80 minutes and what goes into that, so the training. The director of rugby has a wider, slightly longer looking role around making sure that everything is in place and the environment and conditions are in place for those 80 minutes to be the absolute best they can be. 

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“Of course, the 80 minutes is the bit that is seen but the 10,000 minutes and the work that goes into that is incredibly important to allow people to go out and perform to the best they can be. That is the premise really of a head coach/director of rugby system. 

“I am at the sessions, I am on the grass at the sessions, my role within the sessions is observational and questioning and helping the coaches about what we are trying to achieve and how we are doing it, and with the players as well. I don’t coach a specific part of the game. That is the reflection in this system.” 

Asked about why someone like van Graan was needed when Bath had come into the 2021/22 season believing they were on track for success with Neal Hatley as head coach under Hooper, the director of rugby suggested: “It is something that is a big decision for the club and an awful lot of work has gone into it and rightly so. It is a big decision and needs an awful lot of input and it has had that and it’s fantastic to be able to announce it.

“The whole reason that we are making this change is it’s a development for the club we want. We have very high standards, very, very high ambitions and we want to meet those and we clearly have to do things somewhat differently than we are now to allow that to happen. 

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“This is something that has obviously been well thought through and having Johann on the ground is the time we will see it all in place but there is lots gone into it and it needs a lot more to go into it in the next few months to make sure we get it all right. 

“As a club, this is the longest run-in to having a head coach named. It is important that the time we have between now and the start of July when pre-season is used as purposely as possible to make sure there is the very, very best impact but also to respect Johann’s current employment. He is a great man who is doing great things at Munster and will continue to do that for the rest of this season and we are not going to interfere with that but we are obviously going to be having conversations to ensure that this run-in we have is used in the best possible way for this club.”

Curiously, at his midweek Munster media briefing, van Graan didn’t go into detail about his reasons for leaving the Irish province for a club wallowing in the doldrums of English rugby. “I’m not going to give any message at this stage,” he said guardedly. “All I would say is that I took my time, I took a step backwards, I looked at my personal position and that of my family and what I think is the best for Munster and I’ll be moving on at the end of the season.”  

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