THIRTY-FIVE players have not been available to Munster for their preparation for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps due to the much-publicised South African Covid issue — and that’s not even including a number of players unavailable due to injury.
To say that it has made the past few weeks interesting is an understatement.
And yet, when Munster walk out to face Wasps at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, their starting line-up will contain a considerable amount of seasoned internationals. Wasps may end up feeling that they have been hoodwinked.
Munster’s registering of 22 new players, all of whom are under 21 years of age, earlier this week may have created an illusion of desperation, but in reality, only about three of that new crew were ever in contention to be involved for the Wasps trip.
For the rest, it was simply a case of Munster taking advantage of the opportunity to register as many players as possible in case of a future Covid situation.
Munster will go in with what will not be far off a first-choice backline, as a combination of international representation and injury meant that Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, Chris Farrell and Damian de Allende did not make the ill-fated trip to South Africa.
There are five debutants in the starting line-up, Academy quartet Patrick Campbell, Scott Buckley, Eoin O’Connor and Daniel Okeke, and senior prop James French, while West Cork's John Hodnett is back after 13 months out through injury.
Patrick Campbell; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Scott Buckley, James French; Eoin O’Connor, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (c), John Hodnett, Daniel Okeke.
Declan Moore, Mark Donnelly, Roman Salanoa, John Forde, Conor Moloney, Ethan Coughlan, Tony Butler, Jonathan Wren.
Former Cork football minor Patrick Campbell is a ‘newbie’ in the backline, and given his performances for Munster A, the Munster Development side and Young Munster in recent months he actually may have got a call up in a different era.
Campbell can play. The call may have come a year or two earlier than expected, but sports history is littered with examples of young players playing without fear and thriving.
Up front is where the issue lies, as Munster are clearly short here.
Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne and David Kilcoyne are a nice trio to backbone a pack, but after that the barrel is being scraped.
Tight head Roman Salanoa is in his second season with Munster but has actually yet to start a game in red, mainly due to injury issues to be fair, but now he may be asked to play the majority of a big Champions Cup match in what will be his first game in ages. It is a big ask.
Scott Buckley and Declan Moore will probably share the hooker duties. They may be fourth and fifth choices in the position but Sunday has to be seen as a huge opportunity for either, or both of them, to jump up the pecking order.
James French and Mark Donnelly are the other available props. It will be interesting to see whether they are backed, or whether Johann van Graan will not be able to resist the temptation to parachute one or two of the returnees in.
Waterford’s Eoin O’Connor is in the third year in the Munster academy and has been held back by numerous injury issues in recent seasons. Now finally injury-free, he has been in great form for Young Munster so far this season and has the talent to prosper at pro level, and can be expected to put in a decent shift in Munster’s engine room on Sunday.
Hooker Scott Buckley has trained at blindside in recent weeks, although Cork Con’s John Forde would be a better bet, despite his lack of experience at this level.
If Munster were to throw some experience at this game then it is here where it is most likely.
The big unknown, at the time of writing at least, is the availability of the quarantined. Thirty-four players and staff returned to Ireland from South Africa last week and their quarantine period ends on Saturday night, meaning that every player in that group are technically available to play on Sunday. It would mean them flying to Coventry on Sunday morning, but it is possible.
There are obvious player-welfare issues in terms of throwing players into what is inevitably going to be an extremely attritional encounter without them having been able to prep for impact and collisions due to having to isolate.
There would be no fear whatsoever with regards the players being fit enough to play on Sunday, but having them battle-ready is a completely different matter. In saying that, it is probably worth the risk in filling the bench with a few experienced heads.
It is likely that Munster will be right in this tie after an hour or so. A bench of AIL recruits would be extremely unlikely to close it out.
Munster should lose this game. All logic would point to this almost inevitable conclusion, yet one can’t help get the feeling that we are set up for one of those great Munster performances on Sunday.
The backs are to the wall. There is only one thing to do in such a scenario, and that is to come out fighting.