Johann van Graan has strongly intimated that his captain Peter O'Mahony may not be risked for Munster's concluding game of their regular URC season against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 7.15pm).
O’Mahony has been in talismanic, leader-from-the-front form of late, which is all the more remarkable as he has clearly been playing through the pain barrier.
He suffered a deep laceration to his thigh in the defeat by Leinster six weeks ago, missed the Champions Cup Round of 16 first leg against Exeter with a hamstring problem and was unable to finish the second leg against Exeter and the quarter-final against Toulouse due to repeated stingers in his shoulder.
The latter issue appears to have been bothering him plenty of late and van Graan admitted yesterday: “That [O’Mahony’s availability] will be determined at the back end of the week. He’s taken a few knocks over the last few weeks. He was in training today albeit in non-contact.
“We’ll take our time in the week and I’m only going to play guys this week that are 100 per cent. In three weeks’ time, we have a guaranteed quarter-final. I have to look at the big picture. Obviously we want Pete to play, but as the week goes if guys come through training, I’m going to pick them – if not, I’m not going to risk them this weekend.”
With Damian de Allende and Simon Zebo definitely ruled out, van Graan also intimated that although Gavin Coombes returned to training earlier than anticipated this week after recovering from the ankle injury he sustained in that defeat by Leinster, next Saturday's encounter may come too soon for him.
“He’s obviously a very important player for us but he literally only came back to training on Monday so I’m still not convinced that he’s going to play at the weekend.
“We trained today, he was part of training today, and we’re going to train on Thursday and he did phenomenally well in the time frame that he had to get back from that injury. So, the same thing, if I feel that he’s done enough in training and he’s comfortable and his body is ready we’ll pick him. If not I’m not going to risk him. I’d love to pick him but it’s definitely not a guarantee that he’ll play at the weekend.”
Against that, Mike Haley has resumed training after his failed HIA against Toulouse, and Jack O'Sullivan, Chris Cloete and Andrew Conway are all back in the mix as well.
Munster go into the final full of round of games in second place but knowing they could finish anywhere between second and sixth. In the event of sides finishing level on points, the first criteria to separate them will be their number of wins and, if equal, points difference will then decide the pecking order.
As things stand Munster are on 56 points, ahead of the Sharks and Stormers on the same total due to their superior points' difference as all have 11 wins, with Ulster a further point behind and also with 11 wins, and the Bulls in sixth place on 53 points.
Ulster host the Sharks on Friday night while the Bulls are away to the Ospreys, themselves vying with the Scarlets to top the Welsh Shield and secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup. The Scarlets themselves are at home to the Stormers on Saturday at 5.10pm.
So come kick-off at the Aviva Stadium it could be that Munster will already be assured of a home quarter-final were the Bulls and Stormers to lose in Wales, or alternatively could find themselves in danger of finishing sixth and thus face a quarter-final away to Ulster or in South Africa.
But the Munster think tank are more of a mind to focus on the win that will guarantee a quarter-final at Thomond Park and, potentially, the carrot of a semi-final there as well.
“We discussed it on Monday, our strategy won’t change,” said van Graan. “It’s the last round of the league. Every game we play to win. We have to go down to Dublin and put in a performance and be good enough to get a win. If we win the game, we’ll have a home quarter-final. That’s the only focus for us, in terms of four tries and in terms of losing bonus points, that’s not in our thinking.
“If we need to adjust in the game then like in every game, we’ll do it. But that’s not part of our thinking. We’ll treat it like every week. It’s week 48 in our season and we’re going to approach it the same way we approached the previous 47.”
Leinster beat Munster 34-19 in early April at Thomond Park, since when van Graan's side overcame Exeter over two legs, beat Ulster away and Cardiff at home before finishing level with Toulouse after 100 minutes, and Felipe Contepomi for one believes Munster are playing more open and better rugby now "in many ways".
“Firstly we’ve had some continuity,” said van Graan. “We’ve had multiple games now together as a squad. You also learn. I think we’ve made one or two adjustments specifically after that game. We’ve had some momentum, and the way we play, obviously there is growth for us in each part of the game, but as a collective we feel that we are playing pretty good rugby at this stage.”