Loose Pass: A Munster scapegoat and the same crime?

Date published: January 11 2022 - Planet Rugby

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with discontent in the south of Ireland, discipline in the south of England and disarray in the south of France…

In the wrong place at the wrong time

As anybody who may have watched any rugby over the past 30 years will know, if there’s one place an outsider needs to ensure he gets on with the locals, it’s Munster. This is not an institution you cross.

So when Johann van Graan made what, retrospectively, looks to have been a particularly poorly-timed decision to announce he was stepping down at the end of the season and heading to Bath, he might have hoped for the best. After all, he’s not done a terrible job at Munster, it’s just Leinster have been particularly good while he has been there.

What he would not have hoped for is for Victor Matfield to drop him into the depths of Munster’s ire with weights tied to his feet.

“I spoke to Johann van Graan and he said it was so frustrating at Munster as all the good players go to Leinster,” Matfield was quoted as saying on South Africa’s SuperSport TV channel. Anybody with even the vaguest understanding of Irish rugby rivalries watching would surely have gasped in horror and cringed into the depths of the sofa.

Munster is in full uproar. Peter Stringer says he (Van Graan) is not emotional enough or invested enough, TV interviewers are asking questions so loaded you can sometimes see the red dots on Van Graan’s forehead. Even Jamie Heaslip, a Leinster stalwart (but with a Munsterman Dad), took umbrage, criticising the style of rugby, questioning Van Graan’s man-management, accusing him of throwing stats around as a red herring. Another journalist, while watching Munster struggle against Connacht on New Year’s Day, tweeted: ‘this New Year, I am thankful for Bath Rugby Football Club (sic)’. Another Leinsterman, Bernard Jackman, reckons Van Graan should go now, for the good of the province. Any local, in fact, has joined the queue to give the quiet South African a proper shoeing.

Van Graan has quietly given as good as he has got – and the win over Ulster on Saturday, achieved with 14 men, was giving very good. He was asked about two defeats on the bounce and swiftly corrected the interviewer to remind it had only been one. The Champions Cup campaign has started well. Munster players are re-signing in droves. And ridiculously, all this comes when Munster are sitting on a United Rugby Championship record of played seven, won five, having gone to Wasps with a shadow team and blown the hosts away, and having beaten what is a particularly obstinate Castres team at the moment. His post-match response on Saturday: “There will always be noise, but we’ll just get on with it” was also right on the money. It was not pretty, but winning with 14 men rarely is.

Many are the moans that Munster have not won a trophy in a decade, but Van Graan has only been there five years. Surely the rot – if that is what it is – set in before that? Frustration has boiled over in Limerick and in Van Graan, the Munster faithful have found a scapegoat, but it all seems deeply unfair.

Red mist

Red cards all over the show over the weekend, but Loose Pass found itself asking a crucial question in Twickenham: if Alec Hepburn is to be red-carded for dumping Joe Marler on his head, why on earth did Sam Simmonds not go with him?

Both players lifted him up. Both were holding onto a leg as Marler tipped over. The only thing you can really say about Hepburn different to Simmonds is that he dropped Marler with more of a flourish (he was the more obvious transgressor in first viewing). At least he let Marler go though, Simmonds held Marler all the way down – his was the weight pulling Marler down with force.

But it was a dreadful piece of technique from both players in the loss to Harlequins, both guilty of the same crime. Both should have been sent off.

Biarritz’s backs to the wall

Noises had been made all season about how Biarritz would eventually get themselves together after a rough start. A talented, if slightly aged, squad, a coaching staff with good local knowledge and a stadium project which could propel the club back into the big time.

After Saturday’s loss to Perpignan, the pleas from the coaching staff looked a little more forlorn.

“We know that we are still alive (in the Top 14),” said coach Matthew Clarkin after the game. “Until someone explains to me that it is over mathematically, we’re not going to give up. It’s not the result we wanted against Perpignan but we always have a chance. Staying up? It’s a big blow but that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up everything.”

But the inconsistency and mental fragility that Clarkin later said his team now ‘has to show’ has dogged Biarritz all season, on and off the pitch.

Bailed out a couple of years ago by a young entrepreneur, Louis-Vincent Gave, Biarritz’s project was exciting and ambitious. A planned extension and upgrade to a rustic old stadium, an injection of youth into the boardroom, including current Chairman jean-Baptiste Aldige, and a new impetus into youth development, along with a reboot of the amateur section of the club. By and large it has gone quite well – culminating in last year’s epic play-off win over local rivals Bayonne to clinch promotion.

But the stadium upgrade has hit financial snags of the kind you could only find in small-town France: meaning nobody really knows whose fault it is but everybody is screaming blue murder about broken promises and there’s no money, while there has been unrest in the boardroom as well, with a number of former players teaming up against the upstart youngsters in control of the club and trying quite openly to make the amateur team much more professional than the professional one.

Morale among the players, as you can imagine, is a little affected, while the fans appear to be generally lashing out at anything in their path; be it the mayor of the town (who has been accused of withholding money for the stadium upgrade), visiting players (Perpignan captain Mathieu Acebes was publicly angry at the reception he got on Saturday) or the owners, who are sometimes a little too innovative and forward-thinking for their own good. Occasionally, the team’s own players have been on the wrong end as well.

It was never going to be an easy season for Biarritz, late starters in recruitment, a season disrupted by Covid and the whole club still in the midst of a reset. But defeat this weekend was a hammer blow. Time is running out in the Basque country.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan