Earls, 27, will today be assessed by the province’s medics for any adverse reaction in his right knee from yesterday’s training session in Cork as coach Anthony Foley tries to finalise a team for Saturday’s Pro12 game in Italy.
If selected it would be the Moyross back’s first game since injuring a patellar tendon in August, a problem which eventually needed surgery in late September. With Munster’s issues at centre underlined on January 1 at Connacht, when Robbie Henshaw led a charge through midfield in the westerners’ league victory, the return of Earls would be a major boost ahead of the must-win trip to Pool One rivals Saracens on January 17.
Yet assistant coach Ian Costello yesterday refused to rubber-stamp Earls’s comeback.
“There is a rehab protocol Keith Earls has got to go through and it has been managed over the last few weeks,” Costello said. “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.”
Munster are also monitoring the progress of scrum-half Conor Murray (shoulder), loosehead prop James Cronin (ankle) and No.8 Robin Copeland (shoulder). Murray has not played since finishing the December 20 defeat at Glasgow while Copeland went off during the December 26 win over Leinster. Murray took a “little bit of contact” yesterday, with Costello adding he seemed quite comfortable passing. Copeland, however, has undergone a scan and was off to a specialist for further assessment.
Costello admitted there were difficult decisions to make regarding whether to give them game time in Italy or keep them under wraps until the following weekend.
“It is the balance of whether you give them that extra little bit of time to try and recover for the game in two weeks’ time. Or do they need to be match ready,” Costello said.
“A little bit of it is positional, it depends on how much contact and fitness you need. How rugby ready you actually need to be and how effective you would be if you get picked on Saturday week.
“Or is the best thing if you are rugby fit to get some game time under your belt this week. It would be quite different for a loosehead versus someone who might play on the wing or centre.
“We are monitoring them now as the week goes on and making the best decision then.”
Munster announce their team to face Zebre on Friday at noon but Costello said if Earls were to miss out on a seasonal debut the following day it would not necessarily preclude him from the European clash at Allianz Park.
“We have actually had 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.
“Dave Kilcoyne (knee) doesn’t have any immediate return date. He is not in our short-term plans at the moment whereas (fellow loosehead) 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 Thu