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van Graan: 'No regrets leaving'

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'No, I don't live my life with regret' - Munster's van Graan on missing last Saturday's Boks triumph

Johann van Graan doesn’t do regrets. Ask him – as RugbyPass did at Wednesday’s Champions Cup launch in Cardiff – if there was any tinge of sadness that he was 6,000 miles away when his beloved Springboks lifted the World Cup trophy last Saturday and he insists there was no none. 

As a South Africa assistant, first to Heyneke Meyer and then Allister Coetzee, he had earned his Test level stripes, soldering through 71 matches from June 2012 through to November 2017 when he decided he wouldn’t stay on under the incoming Rassie Erasmus and would instead take over the position Erasmus had just left vacant at Munster. 

It was this leap of faith that had him sat in a hotel in Cardiff last Saturday, watching events in Japan from afar as he prepared for Munster’s PRO14 game later that day versus the Blues. There was no disappointment, only elation that a team he previously invested so much into had achieved so much against the odds.  

“It was brilliant,” he told RugbyPass, seated in a top floor hospitality room at the Principality Stadium just days after guiding Munster to their latest league win at the adjacent Arms Park. “Very glad firstly for South Africa for winning it and what it means to our country, a third World Cup win. 

“Rassie has done a fantastic job with the team, his whole team and specifically with the players. It was an incredible performance and Siya (Kolisi) leading the team. I know a lot of guys who have put a lot of work over the last twelve, eight, and four years to get to this position, so very glad for them.”

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Van Graan’s phone has been busy in the interim. “I have spoken to most of them, just congratulating everybody. I have seen a good few videos and a few photos of people drinking out of the cup.

“Like I said, I would be very close to a lot of those players, also the coaching staff. I congratulated Rassie, Jacques (Nienaber), Felix (Jones), Mzwandile (Stick) and Matt (Proudfoot), a very good friend mine as well, Annelee Murray (PR manager), the doc (Konrad von Hagen) who has been there for over 200 Test matches. It’s just great to be South African,” he continued before outlining some lasting relationships with particular players. 

“Look, first Test in 2012 was with Eben (Etzebeth) and seeing him develop as a man. When Siya (Kolisi) ran onto the field for his first test against Scotland at Nelspruit, the hug we gave each other then and the words that were spoken… seeing a lot of players develop into men, into fathers and into world champions is great to see. 

“Someone like Handre Pollard, came straight from the under-20 world cup in New Zealand in 2014 for his first Test against the Scots in Port Elizabeth, planning it that week and coming on the field, having a brilliant Test and the way he has developed. 

“Look, the reason why I am in this game is to make a difference in peoples’ lives and to be part of that journey was special. All credit to everybody currently involved in the coaching team, from the players and the management to SA Rugby. It’s brilliant that they won a third World Cup for our country.”

An irony is that Jones, a van Grann assistant, surprisingly left Munster in June with no job lined up only to be called in by Erasmus in an emergency after ill-health forced Swys de Bruin out of the reckoning. A few months later Jones is now a World Cup winner, unlike van Graan who is busy preparing for another Champions Cup campaign.

“No, I don’t live my life with regret,” insisted van Graan. “I had a fantastic time at the Springboks and I had this opportunity to come to Munster and it’s one I grabbed with both hands. I have loved my time here (with Munster) and you have got to be happy for other people when they achieve success and it’s incredible for South Africa to win the World Cup for the third time.

“I was privileged to be at the two previous World Cup finals, in ’95 as a 15-year-old boy and I went to the 2007 World Cup just before they won it in that final in Paris. I was fortunate enough to have been at the previous two and watched the third one in Cardiff. It was great to be involved.”

Looking back on that breakthrough triumph 24 years ago, he said: “I sat next to a Namibian and a Scottish gentleman and I remember Joel Stransky’s kick was in my line of sight it but I remember more what it meant to the country. 

“Previously, I was a ball boy at Loftus when South Africa made their first season back since isolation and I was standing next to Andre Joubert and met Nelson Mandela there for the first time which made a massive impression on me. 

“After I met him I went off to buy his book, Long Walk to Freedom, and I tried to understand so much of what he went through. I remember him coming down the tunnel in ’95 with the No6 jersey and the sense of pride of being there.

“I also went to the inauguration in ’94, so it was great to be there in ’95 and my heroes back then won the World Cup, Joel Stransky, Joost van der Westhuizen. In ’07, I knew a lot of Bulls players who were involved and then it was great to be involved in the Springboks after.”

WATCH: RugbyPass travels to South Africa for an episode of Rugby Explorer… Jim Hamilton explores the stunning cities of Cape Town and Porth Elizabeth and meets the local rugby communities 

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'No, I don't live my life with regret' - Munster's van Graan on missing last Saturday's Boks triumph