Q&A: What happens to Munster now they have returned to Ireland?

Most of the province’s travelling party returned from South Africa on Wednesday

Munster’s Champions Cup fixture against Wasps is in dount despite the majority of the squad returning to Ireland on Wednesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Munster’s Champions Cup fixture against Wasps is in dount despite the majority of the squad returning to Ireland on Wednesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

What is the latest news regarding Munster’s return from South Africa?

After 11 increasingly fretful days in South Africa, the 34 members of the original 48-strong party landed, via Amsterdam, in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon in two separate groups after being granted permission to return home by the Irish Government. This followed four rounds of PCR testing in six days and constantly revised plans since their first positive test meant they could not join the Scarlets and Zebre squads on a charter flight to Dublin last Sunday.

They must now adhere to mandatory self-isolation at their own locations for ten days and thus will not be able to train at the province’s high performance centre at UL.

The 14 people who tested positive must isolate in their Cape Town hotel until returning negative PCR tests before they can return home.

A Munster statement confirming the return of 34 of their party thanked “the invaluable assistance of Mark Pinsent and his team at our Official Travel Partner, Rugby Travel Ireland.

“Our thoughts continue to be with the 14 players and staff of Munster Rugby who remain at the designated quarantine hotel in Cape Town and are doing well.

“The many well wishes and messages of support for the remaining players and staff are greatly appreciated.”

That group is being looked after by their South African team liaisons Warren Morris and Kubaan Lorens, who have remained on site with medical support provided daily.

Helpfully, it is understood they each have their own balconies.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of panic attacks and mental health issues in the Cardiff party, who are also stuck in South Africa having been due to play there before the new travel restrictions came into effect. Cardiff had secured a 98-bedroom hotel in the Welsh capital for themselves but were denied permission by the Welsh Government, prompting COO Rhys Blumberg to tweet: “Absolutely appalling empathy and support shown by @WelshGovernment with regards to @Cardiff_Rugby staff who are stuck in South Africa.”

Cardiff have confirmed four more positive Covid-19 cases, meaning that six of their party will have to remain in Cape Town, but Director of Rugby Dai Young has vowed they will pitch up with a team to face Toulouse.

“The team will be made up of the internationals who haven’t come with us and some of our best academy players. I’m confident they will do the jersey proud but we need the Cardiff supporters to get right behind us.”

Apart from those who have tested positive, the remainder of Cardiff’s travelling party will return on Thursday and spend ten days in isolation at a UK government hotel in England.

How many of the Munster squad went to South Africa?

Of the travelling party of 48, 34 are players. As they now face ten days of mandatory isolation at their own locations, their availability for Munster’s opening Heineken Champions Cup game against Wasps in Coventry on Sunday week is in doubt.

Munster have 58 players registered with EPCR, and of the 34 who did not travel to South Africa, nine are currently injured or unavailable, so 15 registered players have been training at their HPC under Ian Costello, who returned to Munster as academy manager this season after three years as Wasps’ defence coach.

The 15 players are: hookers (2) Declan Moore, Scott Buckley*; props (2) David Kilcoyne, Mark Donnelly*; locks (2): Tadhg Beirne, Eoin O’Connor*; backrow (2) Peter O’Mahony, Daniel Okeke*.

Scrumhalves (2) Conor Murray, Ethan Coghlan*; outhalves (1) Joey Carbery; centres (2) Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; back three (1) Andrew Conway (*denotes academy player).

Of the nine players currently injured or unavailable, it is believed that Chris Farrell is close to a return, albeit it would be his first game of the season and a first in seven weeks for others. Academy wing Conor Phillips is in Dubai with the Irish sevens squad.

What happens next?

Munster and EPCR are both working strenuously to ensure their match against Wasps goes ahead, and Costello has been assisted by Peter O’Mahony and the other seven internationals at UL in training a group up of 20 players-plus.

They’ve been supplemented by, among others, young players affiliated to the IRFU’s National Talent Squad who were added to the academy two weeks ago, such as the 19-year-old Young Munster fullback Patrick Campbell, a former Cork All-Ireland minor football champion, the 19-year-old Garryowen outhalf Tony Butler and 18-year-old Cobh Pirates lock Edwin Edogbo.

But for those and others to be registered for the Champions Cup would most likely require a blanket change by EPCR in competition rules as opposed to special dispensation for Munster and indeed Cardiff, who are due to host the champions Toulouse next Saturday week, and the Scarlets, who are away to Bristol the same day.

Cardiff have 66 players registered with EPCR, and could possibly cobble together a match-day squad of 23 but although a minimum squad of 19 is required, Munster, with just three props available as things stand, could not possibly do so without reinforcements or unless some of those training in isolation over the next ten days were to travel to the English midlands for a game which is 11 days from now. Munster have not ruled out that possibility.

Even so, Munster’s fixture against Wasps lies in part with the EPCR stakeholders in approving a rule change, and thus with the Premiership and Top 14 clubs in the guise of the PRL and LNR.

Is there sympathy for Munster’s plight?

Yes, especially in Wasps, where this week their head coach Lee Blackett expressed his sympathy for Munster and recalled how his club had to field a weakened team for their Premiership final defeat in October last year by Exeter after 11 positive cases of Covid within their squad.

With no scope for a postponement, Munster may be forced to forfeit the match, with Wasps awarded a 28-0 bonus point win, as was the case for five games in last season’s Champions Cup when a team could not fulfil a fixture.

So Munster have two options: supplement their squad if there is a rule change or ask some of those who will train in isolation to make themselves available.

Then again, who knows what else might happen between now and then. As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, in such an ever-changing climate, 11 days is a long time in sport; as Munster can testify.

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