Munster Rugby/Twitter Munster were very close to flying out on Friday.
# pandemic
Deeply unlucky Munster simply focused on getting home from South Africa
10 of their players and staff have tested positive for Covid-19.

WHEN MUNSTER TRAVELLED to South Africa two weekends ago, they went with a good degree of excitement.

Taking on the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld would have been a unique occasion, as well as an emotional one for head coach Johann van Graan, a Pretoria native. A visit to the Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg a week later would have been enjoyable too.

With their frontline Ireland internationals absent after the November Tests, lots of Munster’s players would have felt that opportunity beckoned for them to impress ahead of the start of the province’s Champions Cup campaign.

There might have been some worries about Covid-19 at the back of players and staff members’ minds – with regulations to be adhered to, of course – but no one could have foreseen just how nightmarish things have turned since.

Nobody had heard of ‘Omicron’ when Munster first flew out but discovery of the new variant completely changed the picture and forced the postponement of their two United Rugby Championship games in South Africa.

Munster came very, very close to flying out en masse on Sunday, having made their way from Pretoria to Cape Town.

They were scheduled to be on a chartered flight to Dublin along with the Scarlets, Zebre, and Cardiff – all of whom were also in South Africa for two-game URC trips. 

The42 understands that Munster had actually loaded up and boarded their buses destined for the airport on Friday when word came back that a single member of their touring party had returned a positive result from a round of PCR testing.

In huge frustration, the entire Munster group then had to return to their team hotel in Cape Town and isolate individually in their own hotel rooms. 

gavin-coombes-and-stephen-archer Gordon Arons / INPHO Munster at training in Pretoria last week. Gordon Arons / INPHO / INPHO

The player who tested positive was moved to a specific quarantine hotel elsewhere in Cape Town, while the rest underwent further PCR testing.

So while yesterday brought seemingly good news when the Minister for Sport, Jack Chambers, declared that Munster had been given the green light to fly home from South Africa, there was still a huge amount of anxiety within the touring party.

Their worst fears were realised late last night as it became clear that a further nine players and staff had tested positive for Covid-19. They have all now been moved to the same quarantine hotel as the first positive case.

There have been a few distasteful jokes in recent days about Munster being able to enjoy the good weather in South Africa but it’s no laughing matter.

Families, friends, and loved ones back at home are understandably worried about the situation. While Munster reported that all those who have tested positive are “thankfully well,” they now face what may be a 10-day isolation in South Africa.

There is still hope that the 38 players and staff who returned negative results during yesterday’s testing will be able to fly out as soon as possible, but Munster have undertaken a further round of PCR testing to ensure the virus has not spread any further. These are agonising hours and as we write, there has not yet been any indication that Munster have actually been booked onto a flight. The42 understands that there is some hope Thursday might be departure day.

The human side of this story is the most important thing but this saga will, of course, affect Munster greatly on the rugby front too.

Whenever they do land back into Ireland, Munster will be required to complete a 10-day period of isolation and return two negative PCR results during that time. The province are hoping that the Irish government will allow them to form a ‘bubble’ at a hotel with training facilities in order to resume training while they isolate.

Meanwhile, a group of their Ireland internationals and academy players – basically, all those who didn’t travel to South Africa – are back in Limerick at the moment training under academy boss Ian Costello in preparation for Champions Cup clashes with Wasps and Castres next month.

ian-costello Dan Sheridan / INPHO Academy boss Ian Costello is running training back in Limerick. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The province are also understood to be working hard to line up loan signings and short-term additions in order to be able to field a full, competitive matchday 23 for those European ties. Champions Cup organisers EPCR will need to facilitate changes to Munster’s registered squad, particularly given that rescheduling looks very unlikely.

Wasps and Castres are not European powerhouses by any means but the challenge facing Munster is obvious.

The reality is that this South African situation could have even longer-lasting effects on Munster’s season. With the possibility that 10 of their group will need to isolate for 10 days in South Africa, then another 10 back in Ireland, the direct impact could be felt deep into December.

Rugby is a sport where cohesion and momentum are highly valued, so there will be huge frustration among Munster’s coaching staff that their best-laid plans have been shredded by this deeply unfortunate turn of events.

But the rugby concerns are all secondary now and the last line of Munster’s statement confirming the nine new positive cases said it all.

“We understand this is a challenging situation and would like to thank families, friends, colleagues, and our rugby community for the many messages of best wishes.”

Simply getting their people back home to Ireland is what really matters for Munster.

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