LISTEN: Speaking to Sporting Limerick, Former Springbok Victor Matfield says van Graan will understand Munster “culture”.

At last weeks’s press conference Rassie Erasmus indicated that Zebre would most likely be Johann van Graan’s first game in charge of Munster. Between now and then is the matter of a home game against the Dragons with Munster looking to get their league form back on track following three defeats in their last four Pro14 outcomes.

Van Graan will inherit a side that has no shortage of talent but who have stuttered of late in their domestic form but who remain well positioned in their European pool. While there is no doubt that the incoming South African will have done his research on his new squad, what are Munster getting in their new head coach?

One man who is well placed to give an informed view on the credentials of the former South African assistant is the 127 times capped Springbok Victor Matfield. Speaking to Sporting Limerick, Matfield says that Munster have made a prudent choice in their next head coach.

“There’s two things that are great about him and make him a really special coach. The first thing is his skills with people. I think he’s a fantastic guy who really cares about all the players. He gets to know each player and get a relationship with each player. The second thing is is that he is a really hard worker.

Matfield and van Graan would have worked closely together at both the Bulls and Springbok set ups. Van Graan started off as a video analyst, with the Blue Bulls Currie Cup team before becoming the forwards coach of the Super Rugby franchise where he was part of three title winning seasons in 2007 under Heyneke Meyer and in 2009 and 2010 under Frans Ludeke.

The former Springbok lock says detailed analysis of both his players and the opposition was a big part of Van Graan’s coaching methods.

“On a Sunday morning when I used say, listen Johann I want to start doing analysis,  he would have done all the work already and would’ve said, listen Victor this is what I see, what do you see.”

“So he’s really a hard worker and someone who really studies the game he’ll know all the stats on a Monday or Tuesday before a game, he’ll know what the opposition’s weaknesses and strong points are so really he’s a guy that put in the hard work and understands the game and has very big respect as well.”

In his early days with the Bulls, van Graan would have spent hours breaking down opposition line outs as well as implementing a strategy to maximise the raw materials at his disposal for the good of the team. The raw materials in question were Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha – arguably one of the best second row partnerships in World Rugby.

Matfield says van Graan has a huge understanding of the game, was always approachable and had the respect of the players.

“He understands the game and even as a player it was fantastic to sit down with him and to talk about rugby. We talked about the lineout for hours he gave his ideas and I gave mine. We could chat about things and argue about things and then we’d get together and we’d make a plan and we’d go an execute it on the field.”

“The same for our attacking game, he was the attack coach with the Bulls for a long time. Fourie du Preez and myself would have sit down with him for hours and talk about, ‘Listen this is what we see see, this is what we want to do, he’ll say this is what I see and then we’ll come up with a plan and then we’ll go execute it on a Saturday. Like I said, he’s very good with analysing and also detail so he will go out to the team and show them exactly what he sees and how they want to do it on a Saturday.”

The Munster job comes with a huge expectation and pressure. Going without silverware since the 2011 Magners League Final will only add to that plus the fact that it will be the South African’s first experience of being a head coach. Despite this, Matfield feels that van Graan is more than ready for the challenge.

“It’s something he’s been aspiring to for quite a long time. I thought he was the right guy for the Bulls when that job came up and I thought he would get that job but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

“I think the nice thing is that we worked with Rassie for years and how we played with the Bulls is pretty much the same as how we played with Rassie. I think it will actually help him to go into a system where Rassie and Jaques Nienaber were before just to take it from there.”

“He already spoke to me last weekend saying ‘ listen I’m going to in to a system, they’ve been successful, I’m not going in there to change everything. I’m going to learn the system and then hopefully just add my taste to it a little and make the changes that are needed.”

Continuity between Erasmus and his successor was always going to be a big concern for Munster. Getting a candidate that could build on the foundations laid down the Erasmus last year is critical for Munster’s continued development.

“Johann doesn’t have an ego. He will go in there he will analyse everything. He will see how they do things and he’s got a lot of respect for Rassie as well and for what he has done.”

“I think he’ll take that and try and build on that and just make small changes if its needed. If it’s not needed and he’s happy with the way it is going then he’ll build on that and make sure of the system and manage the system better.”

Getting to grips with the culture of his new surroundings and organisation will also play a huge part in helping van Graan settle into the role. Matfield says that tapping into the knowledge of some of Munster’s former players is something that van Graan is keen to do.

“Actually the nice part is when I sat down with Johan last week he asked me do you think I should give a guy like Paul O’Connell a call and get to understand the culture and I said I think that would be a great thing.”

“The culture of a club is just as important as the play on the field. And as a new coach you have to understand what makes the players click and if you can get a guy like Paul O’Connell to help you with that it would be fantastic”

Munster have had a long tradition of South Africans at the club with Shaun Payne, Trevor Halstead, Wian Du Preez, Jean de Villiers, BJ Botha springing to mind. Some more recent recruits like CJ Stander, Jean Kleyn and Jaco Taute have fitted in well to the Munster culture and ethos. Fans will no doubt get a chance to see Munster’s most recent SA arrival Chris Cloete in the coming weeks with the international players not available.

Matfield says that the jump from South Africa to Munster is made easier by the similarities in the club culture. The former Springbok also notes that the Bulls system of which van Graan was a key architect is in line with Munster’s playing tradition.

“I must say the little bit I’ve heard about Munster when I’ve been talking to Jean de Villiers and CJ Stander, they always say the culture is so close to South African one. The guys are really a family, they play for each other. If you look at the Munster style over the years and the style the Bulls play its pretty much the same style. They back a big pack, always have a 9 or 10 that controls the game and really attack from turnovers.”

Matfield’s sentiments were very much echoed by Erasmus who at last week’s press conference claimed that his incoming replacement was very much accustomed to pressure situations and will be a good fit for the province.

“That’s exactly him, (van Graan) high pressure situations, demanding wins, demanding performance, effort, he’s used to that and he’s been handling the highest level from the lower levels, he’s a very good fit for what Munster stand for and what the fans are like and what the club is like.”

You can hear the Victor Matfield interview in full on the link below.