Johann van Graan is confident Darren Sweetnam has what it takes to fill the breach left by an injury to Keith Earls ahead of a European semi-final with Saracens that Peter O’Mahony believes will be Munster’s biggest challenge of the last three years.
In-form Ireland wing Earls was omitted from Munster’s matchday squad for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against the English giants at the Ricoh Arena following a thigh strain he sustained in the warm-up against Cardiff Blues a fortnight ago.
Head coach van Graan has turned to Sweetnam to fill the vacancy, reprising a role he has performed throughout the campaign, acting as a late stand-in for Earls in the opening pool game at Exeter and that Cardiff game as well as a similar role in the European quarter-final at Edinburgh when Mike Haley went down sick on the morning of the game.
“We gave him every opportunity to get through the week but we pulled him out at yesterday’s training,” van Graan said of Earls following Friday’s captain’s run in 20-degree heat at the Ricoh Arena.
“He wasn’t 100% so we gave him up to yesterday.
“He’s a big loss. It’s a game that he really wanted to play and he’s been in fantastic form. He played tremendous rugby with two big moments (scoring a try in both halves) against Edinburgh.
“The next man in, Darren Sweetnam, he’s done it so many times this year. I believe it’s his ninth start in a row now. He’s played some excellent rugby throughout the year and this is a massive moment for him.
“In terms of the team, it’s not really a disruption, we’ve backed our squad the whole season and Sweets is in.”
Earls has travelled with the squad to the English West Midlands and van Graan explained: “He’s one of our leadership group and is one of our most experienced players.
Munster captain O’Mahony said he recognised the size of the task facing his team against the back-to-back champions of 2016 and 2017, when Saracens demolished his side in a Dublin semi-final.
“It’s going to take the best game of our season so far, probably this group’s time together over the last few years,” the skipper said.
“Certainly, since Johann has come in, I have no doubt that this is going to be the biggest one, the toughest one. You wouldn’t expect anything less in a semi-final in Europe.
“It takes an enormous amount of effort and willingness to work hard for each other, to get a win in this kind of game. We’ll probably have to dig a bit deeper than usual but hopefully, we can do so.”