Munster now have the worst possible preparation for the Champions Cup

Covid has forced the Reds to return early from South Africa without fulfilling two vital fixtures
Munster now have the worst possible preparation for the Champions Cup

Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox and Ben Healy training with Munster in South Africa last week. Picture:INPHO/Gordon Arons

THE cancellation of Munster’s two United Rugby Championship ties against the Bulls and the Lions in South Africa due to the onset of the new omicron Covid variant has certainly made life interesting for Munster Rugby.

Instead of playing a game on Saturday, the 34 players and the 14 members of staff that travelled to South Africa were stranded as the province tried to work out the arrangements to get back home. There's also the issue of a possible quarantine when they do return, though they may get a dispensation on the basis of being involved in elite sport.

Depending on the severity of this variant we could well find ourselves in a similar situation to last year when the northern and southern hemisphere sides in the URC were kept apart from each other across the Rainbow Cup. These postponed games might never get played.

There are other indirect consequences of the fact that Munster were unfortunately based in South Africa at the time of the outbreak. Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup campaign is scheduled to commence on December 12 in Coventry against Wasps. 

Had the two URC games been played then Munster would have been working to ensure that the team arrived at the Ricoh Arena in as fresh a state as possible after all the travelling to South Africa. Events of recent days have changed everything in this regard.

Now almost the entire Munster squad faces into a challenging period which makes preparation for the extremely important Wasps tie incredibly difficult. A lot of good work would have gone into the squad in recent weeks, but sitting at home, without any contact training, has the real threat of letting all that hard work go to waste. 

The likelihood now is that Munster will face Wasps completely undercooked, and that will not only hurt in terms of sharpness and performance levels, but it will also make the players more susceptible to picking up injuries due to not being up to speed in terms of match practice and not having their bodies attuned to giving and taking collisions.

Simon Zebo and Kevin O'Byrne share a joke. Picture: INPHO/Gordon Arons
Simon Zebo and Kevin O'Byrne share a joke. Picture: INPHO/Gordon Arons

And Munster themselves are not the only team who will be affected negatively if quarantining is indeed required, as all the Munster clubs in Energia AIL Division 1A will also have to do without the services of their Munster contingent over the next couple of weekends if this were to occur.

LOSS

The weekend just gone showed just how important having these Munster players available is to the top club sides in Munster. With almost the entire Munster squad stuck down in South Africa the four Munster clubs in Division 1A really struggled, with Cork Con being the only one to win, and even that was a marginal 17-19 victory up in Ballynahinch, when they had been 15 point favourites in the bookies on Saturday morning.

Young Munster, Garryowen and UCC were all well beaten by their Dublin opposition, with the latter two of those defeats coming on home soil as well.

In normal circumstances, if Munster had been playing at home, or even away somewhere in Europe, a sufficiently large travelling party would have been selected and anyone not picked in this squad could have been released to play for their club side that Saturday. 

With two games to negotiate, before the omicron variant scuppered the mini-tour, an extra-large squad of 34 players travelled to South Africa, meaning Con had to do without Jack Crowley, Sean French and Liam O’Connor, UCC were without the services of Jack O’Sullivan and Alex Kendellen (as well as the injured John Hodnett), while Garryowen had no access to Liam Coombes, Ben Healy and Jack Daly.

For example, Jack O’Sullivan had been instrumental in Colleges 10-6 battle of the basement victory over Ballynahinch last weekend, and indeed having access to three of Munster’s best up-and-coming back-rowers in the opening rounds was a boost to Brian Walsh’s charges, even if they have struggled in the league so far.

Garryowen had started the season really well, winning their opening four games, and key to these victories were the performances of the likes of Liam Coombes and Jack Daly. 

It is no surprise that they have gone and lost three-in-a-row the minute. Skibbereen’s Coombes was called up to the Munster side, which shows that Munster will not be the only side watching anxiously as to how events transpire in the coming days.

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