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How Munster have been working to get their season back on track against Wasps

A crop of talented young players have made an impression at training in Limerick.

Many of Munster's senior players are still isolating.
Many of Munster's senior players are still isolating.

Updated Dec 9th 2021, 8:25 AM

MUNSTER PLAYERS RUNNING 5k time trials in their hotel rooms, 18-year-olds training with the senior squad for the first time, 22 new names registered in the European squad, and one collective goal.

These are strange times for Munster but they’re determined to come through their current challenge in successful fashion and get their season back on track.

Beating Wasps this Sunday in Coventry and then winning at home against Castres on Saturday 18 December are the immediate targets at the start of a very busy period of rugby.

Two postponed games in the same fortnight – as happened to Munster in South Africa -would be a major setback for any team in professional rugby, where planning is so precise, and that’s before even considering the upheaval caused to the province by Covid.

14 of their players and staff were left behind in quarantine in Cape Town last week due to positive tests. Fortunately, they have had individual balconies off their rooms, allowing them to speak to colleagues from a distance, while Wattbikes were brought in to help them stay as fit as possible and PlayStations helped some of them to stave off boredom.

That group’s return home will take place over the next few days as their 10-day quarantine periods conclude at different times, but they then face into mandatory self-quarantine in Ireland too.

Munster doctor Jamie Kearns has been a busy man overseeing the health and wellbeing of the entire squad, even if he can’t see any of them directly.

Meanwhile, many of the group of 34 players and staff who returned to Ireland last Wednesday will complete their self-isolation this weekend, with several of them set to be involved against Wasps. Head coach Johann van Graan – himself still in isolation – has stressed that Munster will not expose players to the risk of injury but it’s understood that many of them have put their hands up to come straight out of isolation and play.

ian-costello Academy manager Ian Costello has been running training. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There have been further positive Covid cases among that group who returned home, which may further delay some of their returns into direct rugby involvement, but we should see many of them featuring against Castres and in the festive inter-pros.

While some players and staff went home immediately last week, a large portion of the returning group opted to complete their self-isolation in a hotel in Limerick. Several of the players have been completing running sessions of up to five kilometres forward and back across their rooms, while they have also had access to some workout equipment.

Nearby at Munster’s high performance centre in the University of Limerick, the remainder of their senior squad – nine internationals who didn’t travel to South Africa and tighthead prop Roman Salanoa, who has just returned from injury – have been leading the preparations for the Wasps game under the guidance of academy manager Ian Costello and his staff, who have been in daily online contact with van Graan and the senior coaches.

A host of academy players and youngsters from the ‘national talent squad’ – young players identified as having great potential – have also been training with the senior squad, ensuring they have been able to run full 15 v 15 sessions. Some of them will feature against Wasps, with the likes of Daniel Okeke, James French, Jonathan Wren, Tony Butler, Scott Buckley, and Patrick Campbell firmly in contention.

Munster simply never entertained the notion of handing Wasps a walkover this weekend.

Costello has been the ideal man to identify players to come into the senior set-up. They have even included three young men who played for the Munster U19s back in September in Peter Hyland, Andrew O’Mahony, and Jack Oliver, who are among the 22 new players registered to the European squad.

Before they returned to training two weeks ago, Costello asked each of the senior Munster players to act as ‘coaches’ within the inexperienced squad. Each of the senior players has been paired with one or two youngsters in order to work on game plan clarity and detail, as well as simply getting to know them on a human level.

With college exams ongoing for some of the young players and various Ireland age-grade squads coming together for training recently, Costello has had a juggling act in ensuring that these younger players are free to be involved with Munster.

The All-Ireland League clubs have also been hugely cooperative because Munster have had to keep themselves in a ‘bubble’ to reduce the risk of Covid within this group that has been able to train.

daniel-okeke Daniel Okeke is in contention for this weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Costello is of the view that the current period will be of huge benefit to every single one of the youngsters, even if they don’t have any involvement against Wasps. Captain Peter O’Mahony has spoken of how impressive he has found this next generation.

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When it comes to it on Sunday, Munster will have a relatively strong starting XV to take on Wasps, although the bench could be callow-looking, if very exciting and youthful.

This game is the first in a crucial block of consecutive match weekends for Munster. These back-to-back European weekends are followed by three United Rugby Championship inter-pros against Leinster, Connacht, then Ulster.

From there, it’s straight back into the Champions Cup with the return meeting against Wasps and Castres before a clash with Zebre in Italy.

It may even be that Munster’s postponed games from South Africa against the Bulls and Lions follow during the Six Nations period, but it remains to be seen exactly when and where those games are rescheduled for.

Either way, this is a potentially season-defining block ahead for Munster and despite the turmoil they have been through and are still experiencing to a fair degree, their ambition remains undimmed.

It all starts in Coventry this weekend as van Graan’s men target a win.

“Since I’ve been the coach, since Munster started many years ago, no Munster team have gone onto the pitch if they don’t think they can win the game,” says van Graan.

“If we didn’t think we could win this game, we wouldn’t send a team over.

“We backed our staff, we backed our players – I think that’s what rugby is about.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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