Beirne and Conway headline potential returnees as Munster staff enter their endgame

Larkham, van Graan and Ferreira all know defeat spells their last involvement with the province

For the eight teams still standing in the URC next weekend’s quarter-finals are win or bust. Akin to the World Cup or the Champions Cup, it’s knock-out rugby and so next Friday’s Ulster-Munster derby at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm) has the added incentive of putting the winners within two games of ending a long trophy drought, whereas the season will come up short for the losers.

As Munster’s attack coach Stephen Larkham noted on Monday, “it’s the same for everyone”. Yet in his case and that of Johann van Graan and JP Ferreira, not to mention the departing Jared Payne as a hugely influential Ulster defence coach, a defeat would mark the end of their time with their province. For the winners, there’s a semi-final away to the Stormers or Edinburgh a week later.

“We spoke about that a little bit this morning in terms of there is nothing if we don’t win this weekend so yeah, full concentration and focus is on making sure we get a good performance this weekend.

“We’ve spoken about the possibilities of what’s going to happen after this weekend but we don’t know so there’s no point harping on that. We’ll have a day in between where guys can pack if we have to go to South Africa or if we have to go to Edinburgh that will be later in the week so it’s not such a big issue.

“But finals footy is always the same. You concentrate on the next game and we’ve been doing this now for the last four or five games, getting in there and concentrate on making sure we get performance this weekend and then everything after that looks after itself.”

Helpfully for Munster, Tadhg Beirne could be in line for a timely return. Beirne has been sidelined since the Six Nations, when he played every minute bar the last quarter against Italy, and hasn’t played for Munster since their Champions Cup win over Wasps in January.

Similarly Andrew Conway’s availability will also be reviewed as the week advances following the knee injury he sustained in the defeat by Leinster last Saturday week.

Furthermore Jean Kleyn and Neil Cronin have also returned to training this week after overcoming respective neck and ankle injuries, while Alex Kendellen is due to complete the return to play protocols this week.

Gavin Coombes is back in the mix, and Craig Casey and Stephen Archer are both in line for a return after missing the Leinster game through illness, as are Peter O’Mahony (stinger), Damian de Allende (chest) and Simon Zebo (chest/rib).

“In terms of selection, most of the guys are available. We had a couple of guys out for the Leinster game but leading into that Toulouse game we had really good consistency with our selection.

“Now we’re back and most guys are available for selection again this weekend so we’ve got a really good, consistent group going into this game. And bar the Leinster game we had a really good run in terms of playing the way that we wanted to play so it’s kind of getting back into that mould and making sure we build on the back end of last week when I thought we trained exceptionally well.”

Whatever happens in the reminder of his and van Graan’s three years at Munster over the next week, or two, or three, will have a major bearing on how he reflects on his time with Munster.

“I think it’s the performance at the weekend...you’ve got to look at the whole three years and I’m certainly proud of everything that we’ve achieved here as a coaching group and a playing group, and I think we’ve made big strides in terms of moving forward as a group, so considerably proud of that.

“I guess I’m not reflecting on it at the moment because I feel that there’s an important game on the weekend that we’re really focused on. It’s a similar story to all the players and all the staff, we’re not focused beyond this weekend.

“There is a season to go ahead next year and the year after, all that stuff, there are potential finals after this weekend, but our focus is solely on this weekend.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times