O’Callaghan is free to play as he missed two games in the Six Nations through injury. However, Keith Earls, Tomás O’Leary, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell and David Wallace were involved in all five matches and get the week off ahead of the Magners League tie against Leinster on Friday week and the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton on April 10.
However, Ronan O’Gara is in the squad, having had limited game time in the international campaign, while another encouraging feature is that only four players, Felix Jones, Denis Leamy, Darragh Hurley and Donnacha Ryan, aren’t available due to injury. None of the quartet is likely to play again this season.
The Magners League table shows Leinster out in front with 38 points from 12 games followed by Edinburgh, Glasgow and Munster, all with 34 from 13, and Ospreys, 33 after 12 matches.
While Munster have good cause to be reasonably happy with the present situation, they are less than satisfied to be propping up the ‘Fair Play League’, having incurred 12 yellow cards and the only red in the competition.
“Discipline is always an issue and something we need to be working on,” admitted manager Shaun Payne last night. “You want to concede as few penalties and yellow cards as possible. It’s not good we’re at the bottom of that table. Look at the try scoring stats... we have 28, four ahead of the next team, and have also conceded the least number of tries. And we’re still only fourth in the table with a vastly inferior points difference to Leinster, who are on top even though they’ve scored 10 tries fewer.”
Payne made light of the relatively poor performances of the team while the internationals were away while agreeing that they reaped far less from the same programme of matches than they had done 12 months previously.
“Crucially, we’re in the top four and have a run of home matches coming up against teams above us so things are in our own hands. We’d all love to play to 100% of our ability every week. That hasn’t happened. We are under no illusions about what lies ahead. But it’s a different dynamic now the Six Nations is over.”
Again in contrast to 2009, the internationals return on a downer after the defeat by Scotland but Payne doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.
“They’ve had a bit of a disappointment but I don’t think it will affect how the lads come back,” he maintained. “If anything, it will make them hungrier for success. Our international boys, irrespective of the results, have come back bursting to play for Munster. You’re dealing with the Paul O’Connells, Donncha O’Callaghans, Ronan O’Garas of this world, professionals to the core, who no matter what the occasion, give their all.”
Payne was more than a little amused when Friday week’s clash with Leinster at Thomond Park was described as “a dress rehearsal” for the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton a week later.
“You’d never call a Leinster game in those terms, say that to any of the players and see their reaction,” he laughed. “There are five matches to go in the Magners, three at home, Glasgow, Leinster and Ospreys, two away at Connacht and Cardiff, so we’d need to win four to gain a home semi-final.”
MUNSTER SQUAD: M. Horan, J. Brugnaut, T. Buckley, D. Ryan, D. Varley, D. Fogarty, M. O’Driscoll, D. O’Callaghan, B. Holland, N. Ronan, A. Quinlan, T. O’Donnell, N. Williams, J. Coughlan; D. Williams, P. Stringer, C. Murray, P. Warwick, R. O’Gara, S. Deasy, J. de Villiers, L. Mafi, T. Gleeson, I. Dowling, D. Howlett, D. Hurley.