Munster will give Keith Earls every chance to return against Zebre

Conor Murray may also play in Pro12 encounter in Parma

Munster are set to find out on Wednesday if a couple of their Lions and other key men are available for this weekend's Pro 12 trip to play Zebre as they finalise their preparations for the crucial Champions Cup clash against Saracens on Saturday week.

And while the short-term is the focus, Munster are also looking to the bigger picture and are this week are expected to announce a number of contract extensions.

Outhalf Ian Keatley is expected to be one of them but the future of JJ Hanrahan, currently considering a three-year deal from Munster and an offer from Northampton Saints, is not expected to be known just yet.

Captain Peter O'Mahony, also out of contract at the end of the season, is also expected to finalise a national contract in the coming weeks.


But of more immediate concern to Munster is getting their Pro12 campaign back on track after successive away defeats where they failed to score in the second-half against either Glasgow or Connacht and, in turn, a boost ahead of their showdown with Saracens.

Keith Earls, out of action since suffering a knee injury in Irish camp in August, remains on course to make his season bow in Parma on Saturday, while Conor Murray is hoping to shake off a shoulder injury which saw him rested for the trip to Galway.

Assistant coach Ian Costello said that both players would be assessed on Wednesday morning as they prepare for the trip to play Zebre.

“There is a rehab protocol Keith Earls has got to go through and it has been managed over the last few weeks. The first step was trying to get through part of a session today.

“He went really well, but the real assessment will be in the morning to see how he responds to that. See has he any soreness, any stiffness and if he responds well to it, it would be with a view to progressing it on a little bit further later in the week – then a decision can be made. We have left ourselves in a position where we don’t have to do that straight away.

“Today we had a little bit of contact with Conor Murray and he had to look at his passing as it is obviously a huge part of his game and he seemed to be quite comfortable. So we will sit down as coaches, we will have a look at it later, assess how things went but the real test will be in the morning how they respond medically,” said Costello.

He said that Robin Copeland had a scan on a shoulder injury picked up in the 28-13 win over Leinster and he is seeing a specialist.

There is mixed news with the loosehead props with James Cronin closer to returning but Dave Kilcoyne is still some way off.

“Dave Kilcoyne doesn’t have any immediate return or he is not in our short-term plans at the moment whereas James Cronin trained with us today and what was really encouraging was that he did a little bit of contact. He did a percentage of the session, so that will be a graduated return as well. If he responded well to that, he did a little bit of scrummaging and that assessment will be made tomorrow and hopefully step that up again on Thursday before we have to name our team on Friday,” added Costello.

Irish lock Donnacha Ryan, out since last March initially with a knee injury and since summer with a troublesome toe problem, has not yet been able to scrummage while hooker Duncan Casey, who has chalked up 13 appearances this season following the injuries to Mike Sherry and Damien Varley, is being monitored after suffering a shoulder injury in the game against Connacht.

Costello said that players, particularly the long-term casualties, would not be ruled out of the Saracens game if they did not play against Zebre this weekend.

“Not necessarily. We have actually these exact same conversations and we have looked at what are the stages they need to get to, where do they need to get to today, where do they need to get to Thursday. Would we play them off the bench, would they start, would we wait until the following weekend? We don’t have definitive answers yet, we are trying to gather all the information to make the best decisions, it doesn’t rule Keith in or out regardless – it is something we will discuss when we find how he responded to training tomorrow,” he added.