The injury list continues to rise as a Champions Cup quarter-final with the three-time European champions looms but, along with the growing casualty list, there is encouraging evidence of resilience, work ethic, and a determination to overcome the current problems.
Saturday night’s PRO14 defeat of defending champions Scarlets had elements of all three as Munster overcame a shaky start to eventually overpower a much-vaunted breakdown threat from west Wales and render a terrible refereeing display from Marius Mitrea irrelevant with tries from James Hart, Robin Copeland, and Alex Wootton to cancel out visiting scrum-half Aled Davies’ seventh-minute opener.
First though, the injuries; hours after Munster had confirmed Ireland wing Keith Earls would be out for up to six weeks with a knee injury sustained in the Grand Slam-clinching victory over England, van Graan saw O’Donnell step gingerly from the field with a shoulder injury, and centre Scannell disappeared down the Thomond Park tunnel for a Head Injury Assessment from which he would not return.
O’Donnell was immediately ruled out of this Saturday’s showdown with the team which dominated Europe with a hat-trick of trophies from 2013 to 2015 and which had the luxury of adding All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa and England lock Dave Attwood to its European squad 10 days ago.
Scannell will have to complete the necessary return-to-play protocols and Munster will also sweat on the possibility Conway (knee) and Zebo (hamstring) may not prove their fitness in time to face the French.
“Yes, he is a doubt for next week,” van Graan said of Zebo, “same with Andrew Conway. At least he did some work with the physios on-field. I think it will be touch and go in both instances, so I would say 50/50 at this stage.
“It’s not something I can control at this stage, I have a lot of belief in our medical staff. Zeebs and Andrew want to be ready for next week, so it is all in the mind as well.
“At this stage our squad’s motto is just adapt, and reassess on Monday, start at zero, whoever is available on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday for this game we will pick.
“If guys aren’t ready, we will go with guys next week that are 100%.”
Zebo and Conway completed an entire backline of players unavailable to face Scarlets, joining Earls and long-term injured Duncan Williams, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jaco Taute, and Chris Farrell, while O’Donnell’s injury adds to that of fellow openside Chris Cloete, whose fractured forearm will keep him out for the rest of the campaign.
The Munster boss will have captain Peter O’Mahony back to face Toulon and fellow Grand Slam winners Conor Murray and CJ Stander, who van Graan hinted could don the number seven jersey. That would leave Saturday’s man of the match Copeland in situ at No.8, although reintroducing Stander to his natural position could mean a European debut for impressive genuine openside Conor Oliver.
Given the enforced selection conundrums, van Graan was positive about where his team was at ahead of their biggest game of the season. They rebounded from a deeply disappointing performance in defeat at Edinburgh the previous week to overcome a Scarlets side that had wiped the floor with Munster in last May’s PRO12 final and which have also reached Europe’s last eight.
“Look, it will never be perfect. I think it was pretty important for us as a squad to get a win firstly. We did that and it was important for us to be tested, we played against quality opposition tonight… so perfect preparation. From their side they are also playing a home quarter-final (in Europe).
“I am pretty confident that hopefully we get our Irish guys back on Monday, reassess, go through a slow Monday because there was a lot of running metres, hard training week on Tuesday and Wednesday and then in big games you need big players to come through and next week will be a game of pressure and hopefully we will absorb pressure and convert some pressure.”
That the pressure imposed by Scarlets came at the start of the game, scoring a seventh-minute try through Aled Davies, will be a concern for Munster given they were just as sluggish at the opening of both halves in Edinburgh eight days previously.
It took a spark from Alex Wootton for them to climb out of the mire, intercepting on his own 22 and racing under the posts only for Mitrea and his TMO Matteo Liperini to judge the wing had knocked the ball forward in the act of interception.
“I was running back and I saw the video and I thought ‘all that energy for no reason’. I was knackered after that,” muttered Wootton later.
Still, it was all Munster from that point, Hart’s unconverted score on 27 minutes, followed by Copeland after the break before Wootton finally claimed his five points in the 77th minute.
It should have been more with Mitrea and Liperini cancelling out a try from James Cronin for what they deemed a double movement, though the replacement loosehead seemed extremely hard done by. The officials also incensed the crowd by failing to punish Scarlets flanker James Davies as he stuck out a leg and upended Sammy Arnold as the centre chased his own kick.
Van Graan remained diplomatic post-match but hinted at a lengthy report set to land on the desk of PRO14 Elite Referee Manager Greg Garner. What pleased the Munster boss was his players’ reaction to the perceived injustices.
“It’s like any other week when decisions go against you, calmness needs to prevail,” van Graan said. “We need to have a look at it and follow appropriate channels and I also thought there were some good decisions in that game so the thing I’m proudest of is the way the players reacted to it.
“Going into knockout games you might get a few decisions go against you there as well. I thought we regrouped well and got that try and this was a game that went down right to the wire. I think we scored in the 77th or 78th minute and, yeah, we’ve just got to adapt, I guess.”
As for the sluggish opening from his team, the South African added: “What I’m always learning is that it’s not how you start but how you finish. And I will take a strong finish a lot more than a strong start.”
JJ Hanrahan; C Nash (S Fitzgerald, 73), S Arnold, R Scannell (D Goggin, 62), A Wootton; I Keatley, J Hart (J Stafford, 78); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 53), R Marshall (N Scannell, 53), J Ryan (S Archer, 53); J Kleyn (G Grobler, 67), B Holland - captain; J O’Donoghue, T O’Donnell (D O’Callaghan, 47), R Copeland.
T Williams (D Jones, 62); T Varndell, S Williams - captain (S Hughes, 66), P Asquith, S Evans, R Patchell, A Davies (J Evans, 59); D Evans (P Price, 53), R Elias (E Phillips, 53), S Lee (W Kruger, 53); T Beirne (L Rawlins, 62), D Bulbring; A Shingler (J Macleod, 53), James Davies, W Boyde
Marius Mitrea (Italy).