THE days of downtime for players after a string of difficult games are no more.
After the back-to-back, bruising, and controversial Champions Cup games against the current kings of Europe, Saracens, Munster face a trinity of local derbies that will stretch their resources to the very limit.
And at the end of these three clashes, they will be heading to Paris to play Racing 92 in a do-or-die game that will determine their European fate.
Munster head coach, Johann van Graan, and his squad of already fatigued players will find the next three games just as difficult as the two they have just played.
Connacht away, tomorrow, is just a horrible fixture. The venue, the bad weather, and the dogged resilience of the Westerners at home mean that Munster must be firing on all cylinders.
After that, they must lock horns with Leinster. At least they will have the comfort of welcoming them to Thomond Park.
Finally, there’s a little trip up north, to meet an Ulster side that is currently playing a brand of rugby good enough to overwhelm Harlequins and ASM Clermont.
Emerging from those games with no serious injuries is like asking for a miracle.
Rugby was never designed to be easy, but it was conceived to be enjoyable. I’m not sure if the Munster lads are enjoying it.
One reason for the discomfort is that they are transforming their style, but they must stick to this process.
Moving away from the traditional, forward-based game that Munster have become famous for will not happen overnight. If they deviate from this plan, Leinster, Saracens, and some of the other sides that have adapted to the modern game will outstrip them.
The last coach who tried to bring Munster into the new era was Rob Penney. He only lasted two years, before the powers that be offered him a one-year extension on his contract.
Many people would look at the life of a professional rugby player through rose-tinted glasses, without seeing the daily grind. The best analogy I could use is a car salesman, whose take-home wage is solely determined by the number of cars he sells.
For a professional rugby player, their contract isn’t quite that blunt, but they either produce the figures on the field or they will be looking for a new club, or a new profession, at the end of the season.
Everything a pro does is measured, evaluated, and scrutinised. They are constantly being pushed to improve. Nearly every day they go to work, they risk getting injured.
Since the onset of the professional game, the shape and power of a top-flight player have changed considerably. The injuries are becoming catastrophic. A study by consultants in Tallaght cites the increasing occurrence in the game of acetabular fractures. They affect the socket of the hip bone and are generally sustained after violent trauma, such as road-traffic accidents.
The medical care that the modern-day pro receives today is of the highest calibre, unlike in my time, when we were just injected and thrown back out there. I guess the players of today are viewed as valuable commodities, rather than just pieces of meat.
My major concern is where will it all end and to what extreme the youth of today will go to replicate the players we saw in the final of this year’s World Cup. The physiques of the South African players have raised more than one or two eyebrows, because of their muscle mass.
The good news from the World Cup was that the number of documented, head-related injuries dropped. This was down to a zero-tolerance approach by the officials. Any tackle above the shoulder line was sanctioned with a red or yellow card.
Why they don’t just put a line at nipple height on every rugby jersey is beyond me. This would give players a defined zone, where they can and can’t tackle an opposing player.
Anyhow, back to what van Graan must do over the next few weeks to preserve player fitness and remain competitive in both the Guinness Pro14 and the Champions Cup.
Most of the internationals who played in last week’s loss to Saracens will be rested over the next few weekends, because of the player-welfare guidelines, and while it lessens the value of these provincial clashes, the same rules apply for all four teams.
This will allow the Munster coaching ticket to give some of the lesser-known players an opportunity to show their capabilities in a very competitive arena.
Up-front, we will, hopefully, see the likes of Liam O’Connor and Fineen Wycherley continue to fulfil their much-talked-about potential. In the backs, Nick McCarthy, who is putting a whole pile of pressure on Conor Murray, and Young Munster’s Dan Goggin, who is maturing brilliantly, need to embrace these opportunities.
The days of picking players because of their reputation must be banished. If someone is out-performing their in-house opposition, they simply must start. If Joe Schmidt had adopted this philosophy during the World Cup, Ireland may have fared a bit better.
Don’t be surprised if Munster win or lose all of their next three games.