Munster captain Peter O'Mahony remains a significant doubt for their last 16 Heineken Champions Cup game against Toulouse at Thomond Park on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) after sustaining a deep laceration to his thigh against Leinster but he will be afforded every chance to recover.
Senior coach Stephen Larkham admitted O'Mahony's prospects remain "really unknown at this stage, we'll make a decision later in the week," but stressed: "He's very important to our plans – club captain, team captain, and a world-class player. We want to give him as long as possible. We don't know today, we'll make a decision later in the week."
From the outside, this looks like a particularly tough week for Munster, coming off the back of a 16-6 defeat by Leinster in last Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 final.
“It’s tough,” Larkham freely admitted. “Any final that you lose or game you lose at the end of the season is tough. I guess the beauty of the current situation is that we’ve got another massive game this weekend. It’s another final this weekend effectively, we have to win to keep going in Europe.
“We put our full focus into the game last week and it was very tough to take from the players’ point of view. We’ve given them a couple of days off and come back in for the first day and we’re moving forward, that’s the beauty of where we’re at right now. We’ve got something to focus on and if we didn’t have that, we’d be hurting for a lot longer.”
Aside from the task of preparing the side to face Toulouse, one of the more challenging aspects for the coaches will be to revive the side psychologically from the double whammy of losing a final and losing to Leinster.
Larkham acknowledged that “some of the guys are still struggling, some of them are just about over it. It’s tough, we’ve had a couple of games against Leinster that haven’t gone our way and we’ve been the team that has pushed Leinster more than anyone else in the big games with full squads out there.
“We’re still picking up our mental state at the moment. It’s expected and by the end of the week, we’ll have built nicely.
“We’re not trying to prove anything to anyone outside of ourselves. We want to play the game we want to play. There were facets of that game that came out well at the weekend but it wasn’t a complete performance. We’ve looked at our fundamentals and want to make sure we’re back to those at the weekend.”
Asked why Munster appeared to be so flat at the RDS last Saturday, Larkham maintained: “I wouldn’t say we were flat. It was one of those games that just crept away from us. We’ve spoken a fair bit about belief this morning. That’s a key message. Are they better than us? They were better than us on the day.
“There’s some stats that if you look at it, they made more mistakes than us when they had their hands on the ball. They kicked more than us throughout the game.
“It was fairly evenly matched throughout the whole game and the one thing we really take out of it is that we’ve got the game plan and the skill there. We’ve just got to beat them on the day by better execution in certain parts of the game.”
Larkham would have had a particularly close working relationship with the Clermont-bound JJ Hanrahan over the last couple of seasons and the ex-Wallabies outhalf maintained financial imperatives contributed to the decision to release the 28-year-old.
“We’re definitely under budget constraints like everyone else in world rugby at the moment, we’ve got to find some money and we’ve got a budget to work towards.
“Equally, those guys are really in their prime. Their age is perfect. JJ had a number of offers and he chose Clermont because he felt it was best for furthering his career. Neither of those guys are going to cash in or retire. They’re going to further their careers.”
Munster have confirmed the signing of 25-year-old South African lock Jason Jenkins on a one-year deal, as well as contract extensions for Fineen Wycherley (who could re-enter Munster's thinking this week pending further assessment of his neck injury) and Diarmuid Barron and the upgrading of four more academy players to senior contracts, namely Jack Daly, Josh Wycherley, Thomas Ahern and Jack Crowley.
Three of that quartet have all completed their three years in the academy, while Crowley, who turned down an offer from Ronan O’Gara to join La Rochelle recently, has been promoted after just one year.
Although Jenkins is regarded primarily as a lock and is 6’ 7”, Munster’s statement related the signing of the once-capped 25-year-old to the departure of CJ Stander.
Their reason for signing Jenkins was “first and foremost, experience,” according to Larkham, who added: “Springboks, Springboks A, Japan, playing for the Bulls in South Africa. He’s a South African forward, he knows the tough stuff, he gives us coverage in all positions in the back five.
“He can’t play in the frontrow but he can certainly play in every position in the back five. He’s going to give experience to all those players, whether they’re young or old. He’s going to give us good experience there.”
Currently playing with Toyota Verblitz in the Japanese Top League, Jenkins has joined on a one-year deal. Previously he played 57 times for the Bulls over a four-year period. A former South African ‘A’ and U20s player, he won his sole Springboks cap in Rassie Erasmus’s first match at the helm, in 2018 against Wales.
The 23-year-old Fineen Wycherley, who is a product of Bantry Bay RFC and something of a poster boy for rugby in west Cork, has made 56 appearances for the province as a lock or backrower, has signed a two-year deal. The 22-year-old Barron, who has made four appearances in his first season as a hooker in the senior squad, has signed a one-year extension.
Daly, a 22-year-old backrower from Kerry who has signed a one-year deal, is a product of Castleisland RFC. With that club's most celebrated ex-player Hanrahan moving on, so Crowley has followed Ben Healy and Jake Flannery in being upgraded to a senior contract as the province looks to invest in three 21-year-old outhalves on their roster.
Josh Wycherley, the 21-year-old younger brother of Fineen, was part of the Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam-winning Six Nations campaign in 2019 and after making nine appearances this season, including an eye-catching full European debut in that win away to Clermont, has signed a two-year contract.
The hugely promising, 6' 9" Ahern, from Waterford and a product of Waterpark RFC, has signed a two-year deal after making six appearances this season. Most recently the 21-year-old lock, while paired with 20-year-old Cian Hurley, became Munster's youngest starting secondrow combination in the professional era.
Crowley, from Innishannon, has only played 33 minutes for the seniors this season and like others of his generation has been relatively starved of game time, but there’s no doubting his talent. A classy product of Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar, the outhalf starred for the Ireland Under-20s last year, scoring 36 points in three games as Ireland clinched the Triple Crown before the campaign was cut short.