‘If I get Covid again, I’ll have another crate of wine in my hotel suite in Cape Town’

Rowntree confident Munster players have no anxiety issues over return to South Africa

Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree says the squad are ready for their trip to South Africa. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Munster's staccato season is about to have lift-off, with Saturday evening's URC game against the Dragons at Thomond Park (kick-off 5.15pm) the precursor to their flight to South Africa for their rearranged meetings with the Bulls and the Lions at altitude in what is a hectic part of their revised season.

The province's original round six and seven games were postponed after the outbreak of the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa and led to Munster effectively being divided into three bubbles, but forwards coach Graham Rowntree insists there are no anxiety issues or psychological scars from that hugely disruptive trip. Indeed, he appears to be relishing the prospect.

"All the protocols are sorted and we are happy with them. If I get Covid again, I'll have another crate of wine in my hotel suite in Cape Town which got me through my isolation," he quipped, both wryly and a tad wearily.

“No, we’re happy with the protocols and we’re ready for it. And as I keep saying, we’ll deal with that on Sunday. We’ve a big game on Saturday night and we have to get that right first.”


Munster sit fourth in the URC table, one point above Edinburgh after beating the Scottish side at home almost a fortnight ago, but although the Dragons sit 15th after just one win in nine matches Rowntree is wary of the challenge posed by the Welsh region.

“They kick the ball well, they kick the ball a lot. One of the highest kicking rates in Europe and we have got to be wary of that and what that poses for us. They are a very good lineout-contesting team. They have a good breakdown and some good ball-carriers. They are well coached, I’ve got a lot of time for their coaching team.

"They'll be a handful. We were over there last year. The conditions weren't great. And we're not fooled by their league position. And as to their personnel, they'll be getting some guys back from Wales, similar to us. But they'll be extremely competitive and they've shown that this year."

Craig Casey and Gavin Coombes are expected to feature, and likewise Aaron Wainwright is expected to play for the Dragons after being released by Wales.

Without going into the specifics, Rowntree says they have a plan in place for their South African trek, albeit it hinges on a clean bill of health from the Dragons game.

“We’re very clear in terms of what squad we are going to take. We’ll be flying the next day but the guys have done that before. They’re all professionals, they’re used to doing that and looking after themselves. We have a squad in mind. Obviously we have to look after Saturday night first in terms of injury. And we’ll look forward to that South African trip on Sunday.”

Rowntree says the players have already been prepped.

“They’ll know what to expect from the analysis we have shown them. Physicality is undeniable with South African teams. You know what’s coming. But it’s another thing trying to deal with it. It will be a real test of the basics of our game.”

Akin to their fellow South African sides, Jake White's Bulls team started the season slowly when losing heavily to Leinster and Connacht, but with the return of their Springboks they have picked up momentum to rise to 10th in the table.

“I’ve no doubt that at home they’ll be good against us,” said Rowntree. “They’ll be waiting for us. There will be some great places for our guys to go and challenge themselves, playing rugby against some top teams in some top stadiums in a great country. It’s a country I’ve been to more than any other country on the planet. It’s a great rugby country.”

With their big scrum, maul and direct runners, the Lions were no pushovers against Leinster last Friday night, and like the Bulls they have six of their last eight games at home.

“Watch the Lions games, and see the size of their squad. It’s not fair,” said Rowntree. “It’s not fair. They’re huge men, and that’s a real strength of their game, the Lions. So that’s what we’ve got to deal with in the Lions game.

“The Bulls, physical breakdown. They’ve a physical backrow. Big men running at you very quickly on the high veldt. It’s a bit of a different challenge from what we’re normally used to but it’s a challenge we’ll be ready for.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times