Munster have been boosted by the return to full training of captain Peter O'Mahony and lock Jean Kleyn ahead of their Heineken Champions Cup game against Castres on Friday night at the Stade Pierre Fabre (kick-off 8pm Irish time), although Damian de Allende remains an injury concern.
Kleyn has recovered from the knee injury he sustained against Connacht on New Year's Day while O'Mahony has also resumed training after sustaining a leg strain in the warm-up before last Saturday's win over Ulster at Thomond Park. De Allende missed the Ulster match with an abdominal injury and his availability for Friday's game will be determined later this week.
Chris Cloete (neck), Jason Jenkins (abdomen), Joey Carbery (elbow), Calvin Nash (ankle), Rowan Osborne (head), and RG Snyman (knee) continue to be managed by the medical department and are not available.
“Hopefully Pete comes through training during the week,” said Johann van Graan today. “He trained yesterday afternoon. We didn’t have any contact yesterday, he still has to come through that, but he looked really sharp yesterday afternoon.
The return to full fitness of John Hodnett after a year's absence has been one of Munster's main boons in recent weeks. Along with the continuing upward graph of last season's Irish Under-20 star turn, Alex Kendellen, the good form of Jack O'Donoghue and the return of Gavin Coombes in the last two games, it gives Van Graan and the Munster think tank some selection headaches in the backrow for this game.
"In terms of depth, Alex Kendellen has really come through. Before John Hodnett tore his Achilles last season I said I thought he'd be close to our European 23 in future years. Jack O'Donoghue I thought played really well against Castres at 8 and Gavin Coombes is back to his best," said Van Graan of Coombes' recent outings against Connacht and Ulster after being one of those who tested positive for Covid in their doomed South African trek.
The Munster head coach also referenced Jack O'Sullivan, Jack Daly, Cloete, Jason Jenkins and Daniel Okeke, who made a sensational debut in the win over Wasps.
"We are blessed with a very good group of loose forwards. We'll stick as close as we can to what we believe is our best group over the next two weeks and we've got the Zebre a week after that, and we've still got that Leinster game to fit in somewhere wherever that maybe be. But we're very happy with the loose forwards that we have."
Van Graan acknowledged that the performances in the side’s two defeats this season, away to the Ospreys and Connacht, had not been good enough but he took heart from both the manner of last Saturday’s win over Ulster and the character shown after Simon Zebo’s 15th minute red card.
“Character is something which we’ve got in spades inside this HPC. We’ve got a group who believe and we take it week on week. Some games we were in a position where we were 15 men and the opposition were 14, this week we got tested losing a winger for 65 minutes of the game, which is very challenging.”
The victory over Ulster and the onset, touch wood, of the upcoming European games against Castres on Friday and Wasps at Thomond Park on Sunday week, should also dilute the criticism that had been gathering around Munster and specifically Van Graan.
“There’s a lot of noise on the outside. It’s a professional sport, it’s not surprising. You’ve just got to make sure that communication is clear. I’ve communicated the fact that I’m leaving back in December. I gave my reasons. The players and the club know exactly where they stand with me.
“As the coach and as the coaching staff, we’ve got a job to do week on week and that’s how we’ve been approaching our play, week by week, over the last five years.”
Munster are also well placed in Pool B as one of three teams with nine points out of 10 after their bonus point victory away to Wasps and home win over Castres, fractionally behind Harlequins on points' difference.
Admittedly, Toulouse and Bristol are on five points with a game in hand, but a win away to Castres would assuredly ensure Munster of a place in the last 16, and then with every chance of securing four wins out of four and a favourable seeding in the knock-out stages.
“I think the two European games we’ve had this season were very unique,” said Van Graan. “But we came out of a very challenging time with two wins out of two to put us in a very good position. “The way it is structured currently, it is four games. If you win three out of your four games it puts you in a very good position to make the knockout rounds. You might need less but obviously we’d like to win every game that we play.”
This Friday’s encounter will be the 18th meeting between the sides, and although Munster hold an 11-1-4 head-to-head record, they did lose on their last visit to Castres three seasons ago.
Referring to that spiteful 13-12 defeat, Van Graan acknowledged that Munster will need to be disciplined, but maintained: "That's something that we pride ourselves on. I thought our discipline over the course of this season was pretty good. In terms of Friday evening, we need to adapt to the referee and Luke Pearce is one of the best referees around."