Johann van Graan: ‘Authenticity’ key to Bath’s resurgence as they seek Premiership ‘opportunity’

James While
Johann van Graan, head of rugby at Bath, alongside Premiership trophy.

Johann van Graan, head of rugby at Bath, alongside Premiership trophy.

As Bath prepare for their biggest match in an age, James While caught up with their head of rugby Johann van Graan to get an insight into the journey both he and his club have been on this season.

Van Graan is a man of understatement, humility and honesty. Getting superlatives out of the former Springboks assistant coach is something of a Herculean task as his natural tendency is to focus both on the now and the teamship of the great Premiership club he now leads.

Simple message to the team

“What we as a group said at the start of the Premiership season is that there’s 18 rounds, we play our best every week, we grow and then see where we are at. No expectations, just our best every week. And I believe that’s exactly what we’ve achieved and I’m proud of how the team responded to that message,” he said.

“Our semi-final is testament to the hard work by the players and staff, and them alone. They’ve worked now for 50 weeks to get us in this position, with a lot of people behind the scenes of departments, staff and coaches supporting them.

“It’s the hard work that pays off and for us now, it’s about enjoying this week, knowing we’ve got an opportunity on Saturday afternoon to plan a route to the final. It’s in our own hands.”

Bath’s Round 18 win against a depleted Northampton Saints secured them a home tie at the Rec, a fortress of rugby that’s seen glory years both come and go.

The magnitude of advantage of playing in your own backyard isn’t lost upon the former Blue Bulls man and he believes that the Rec is the place to be come Saturday.

“There’s no doubt that every statistic proves that it’s a lot better to play at home than play away,” Van Graan said. “The gods fell our way this time and we’ll embrace that fortune.

“We’ve got fantastic supporters that have been there from the first round of the Premiership right through the Champions Cup and now onto the final stages of the Premiership and we want to do them proud.

“If you look at the interest for tickets and how quickly we sold out the stadium, I think we could have sold out the Rec a few times over.

“It’s good to see and most pleasing thing from a team point of view is that the City of Bath is proud of the club and proud of the players and that’s not lost on us. It is a huge part of the community culture.”

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Van Graan has been at the club a relatively short amount of time but has made a huge amount of impact. The speed of change has reached a breathtaking momentum measured back to where the West Country side were 18 months ago but he believes the change is as much down to good people as it is to good planning.

Key to the turnaround

“We started on July 11 two seasons ago and we took it day by day as it wasn’t in a great place,” he revealed. “The number one thing was authenticity; letting people to be themselves starting with me and Ben (Spencer).

“Then it was down to all the players and all the staff working incredibly hard and aligning all of our thoughts and all of our actions as a collective, not as individuals, and repeating that for two seasons in a row. The result is not only the semi-final opportunity, but that we are walking together in the same direction as one.

“You get what you deserve, and we’ve worked incredibly hard for this position, and I am so proud of this group. On and off the pitch we have lived the values we agreed across the season. And like I said, it’s also been great fun.”

Van Graan has been at the helm of some big knockout games, whether at Super Rugby or Test level and, with a knockout game ahead, he’s at pains to explain that the dynamic shift when it comes to sudden death situations.

“Look it’s definitely not just another game, it’s a knockout game and that brings different challenges and plays different mind games,” he said.

“I’ve been privileged enough to be involved in Super Rugby semi and final and World Cup semi and final. Sure, this is my first Premiership final but what I’ve learned through all the situations in the other different competitions is that we’re not treating it as just another game, more so as something to get excited about and to embrace positively and without fear.

“Of course we’re sticking to our process, but ultimately, if you can’t enjoy it, and if you don’t see this as a different game, then why do you play this sport? And is there extra pressure? Yes! Is the expectation? Yes, of course.

“But we want to be in these games – that’s what being a pro sportsman is about – testing yourselves. And I know we’ve got a performance in us on Saturday afternoon, although I am acknowledging that we’re coming up against an opponent that played the final last year and are an outstanding team. But that’s what you’re going to face in semi-finals; you’re going to face another good team and you shouldn’t fear that, it’s your reward.

“But on the other hand, I think we’re all under no illusions that we’ve not won anything yet and we need to produce a massive game to progress.

Facing Sale

“We’ve probably played Sale Sharks enough now to know what they’re about. And I think in terms of the way we want to play that it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s clarity of understanding of what has got us to this position in the first place.

“As you and your readers know, we’ve slowly been growing our game now for the last two seasons and I feel we can adapt to a number of on-pitch situations now.

“We started off with our defence and set-piece game and, with time and great recruitment, we’ve added so many layers to our attack this season, averaging across all competitions around four tries per game. What we have now is great situational awareness and that comes from the leadership of the team in the pitch.

“For Bath as a club, I think obviously there’s been some tough years and some pretty dark days down the line in recent times. It’s a club that expects success and they’ve not had too much in recent times. However, we are in a great place at the minute and I’m loving it at the club, loving my rugby, and I love living around the town.

“So, I cannot speak highly enough of the club, we are determined to do the amazing fans justice for their support and, like I say, we’re just looking forward to the weekend.”

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