Munster in a race against time to fulfil first Champions Cup match

As yet it is unknown whether squad will be allowed to train while in 10-day quarantine

The Munster squad during training in South Africa last week. Photo: Gordon Arons/Inpho

The Munster squad during training in South Africa last week. Photo: Gordon Arons/Inpho

 

Munster and the EPCR are both determined to ensure the province’s opening Heineken Champions Cup game against Wasps in Coventry on Sunday week, December 12th, will take place as scheduled - primarily as there is little or no scope for postponing and re-arranging the match.

However, the volatility of Munster’s situation and the logistical difficulties they may still encounter leave them in a complex race against time to fulfil that fixture.

All but two of the province’s squad of 34 players and 15 additional staff remain in isolation in their Cape Town hotel, whereas the one member of the party who tested positive for Covid-19 and a suspected close contact are isolating in a separate hotel, after the entire party were unable to board a charter flight to Dublin on Sunday following the results of those PCR tests.

Similarly, the Cardiff squad remain in Cape Town after two positive tests in their travelling party of 50, whereas the Scarlets and Zebre squads landed in Dublin late on Sunday night. From there, the Scarlets squad were taken by coach to Belfast, where they checked in at 5.30am on Monday morning, and remain in isolation, while the Zebre squad were able to fly on to Bologna.

The Minister of State for Sport, Jack Chambers, has said that the travelling Munster party in South Africa have been permitted to return to Ireland, except for the person with the positive case and the potential close contact, as soon as was feasible.

The Munster party of 49 have had to remain in South Africa following an outbreak of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant in the country and have undergone another round of PCR tests, the results of which should be known by Tuesday. Plans to return home are in a constant state of flux but conceivably the travelling party may be able to board a flight on Wednesday, or at a push Tuesday evening, leaving a 10-day window before the Wasps game.

An EPCR spokesperson said they are “monitoring the situation and we’re in contact with the clubs that have been most affected, namely Munster, Cardiff, Scarlets and Zebre.”

However, the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has intimated that Munster players and staff will have to isolate on their return to Ireland for 10 days while undergoing two further PCR tests and assuming those tests are negative.

Options for the players currently in South Africa to isolate at one of various locations in Ireland are being explored but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to both complete the 10 days of isolation and prepare adequately for the Wasps’ game. This would also be their first match in seven weeks after the November international hiatus and the postponement of the round six and seven games of the URC in South Africa.

In the meantime, Munster have said that academy manager Ian Costello and his staff are overseeing the training sessions of those based at their HPC in the University of Limerick, which include nine internationals and seven academy players.

However, as things stand, 34 of the 58 players Munster have registered with EPCR are still in South Africa and a further five players are long-terms injuries. That leaves just 19 registered players in Limerick, which clearly would not be adequate for fulfilling their European first round fixture.

For example, of the 19 players fit and training in UL, only 10 are forwards and of those only three are props, and with just a quintet of back five forwards they would not have any replacement cover for the second-row and back-row.

Tournament rules forbid any additions being made outside specific windows and while there are extenuating circumstances to the plight of Munster, as well as Cardiff (who are due to host the champions Toulouse next Saturday week), Scarlets and Zebre, they are unlikely to be granted one-off exemptions.

The change of structure within the EPCR means the three qualifying leagues have a much more hands-on, decisive say in everything and Munster’s situation is unlikely to cut much sympathy within the Top 14, or Ligue Nationale de Rugby, and Premiership Rugby.

Tournament rules also stipulate that any team which cannot fulfil a fixture forfeits the match, with the opposition awarded a 28-0 bonus point win, as has happened to four games in round two of the abandoned pool stages last season.

To cite one example, although they are in this season’s Challenge Cup, Toulon felt aggrieved at suffering this fate in their pool game away to the Scarlets and particularly when informed that Leinster were awarded victory in the round of 16 tie after their squad had travelled to Dublin.

A best case scenario then would be, firstly, for the Munster travelling party to all pass their latest round of PCR tests in Cape Town and somehow fly out of South Africa and land in Ireland by Wednesday. Then they would need permission from the Irish Government to train somewhere while isolating for 10 days (and separately from the 19 players in the UL) before a matchday squad of 23 and travelling reserves come together a day or so before travelling to the English midlands to face Wasps, or on matchday itself.

Not having played for seven weeks is hardly ideal, but as the last 22 months have shown, squads need to be adaptable at all times and Munster, as much as any of the 24 teams in the Heineken Champions Cup, will move hell or high water to fulfil their fixture against Wasps, and especially their game against Castres in Thomond Park six days later.

Aside from sporting needs, there are significant financial considerations at stake, as that Castres game will be Munster’s first European game in front of a Thomond Park crowd since they hosted the Ospreys in January last year.

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