Munster boss Johann van Graan on Monday issued yet another grim medical report on his battered squad but insisted there would be no excuses ahead of facing European big guns Toulon in this Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park.
Three-times champions Toulon travel to Limerick this weekend on the back of a 49-0 thumping of French Top14 rivals and fellow quarter-finalists Clermont Auvergne on Sunday and will start this Saturday’s game as hot favourites to continue that rampart form against a Munster side in injury crisis.
Already missing Keith Earls (knee), Duncan Williams (facial), Tyler Bleyendaal (neck), Chris Farrell (knee), Chris Cloete (forearm) and Jaco Taute (knee), head coach van Graan saw centre Rory Scannell removed from last Saturday’s PRO14 win over Scarlets for a Head Injury Assessment and openside flanker Tommy O’Donnell suffer a recurrence of the AC joint injury which had kept him out of Ireland’s Six Nations squad.
O’Donnell has been ruled out of the Toulon game while Scannell will have to complete the necessary return-to-play protocols before he is considered for selection while doubts remain over the availability of back-three stars Andrew Conway (knee) and Simon Zebo (hamstring).
Both were rated as 50/50 chances though Conway, who has not played since the round six victory over Castres in January, is considered the more serious doubt and van Graan said: “We have so many injuries in the backs so we will give him every opportunity to come back.
“Any injury at this stage is a massive blow. But we had our review and preview this morning. It's not an excuse for us, we're a squad, we like challenges,” van Graan said on Monday.
“It's not something that we can change or control but for a guy like Calvin Nash, did outstandingly well and Darren Sweetnam is ready to go. I thought Alex Wootton did well.
“For the big games, you want your experienced guys but it's also an opportunity for a guy who hasn't played in those big games to say 'Pick me, I want the ball and I want to contribute to this team.'”
As for the threat Toulon pose Munster, former South Africa forwards coach van Graan added: “Any side that beats Clermont 49-0 are quality. Just look at the tries they scored, some of the broken-field attack, their scrum, their maul - some scrums they just went right through the opposition.
“I've coached some of their players and I've coached against quite a lot of them on the international stage. They have star players and they put together a fantastic performance on Sunday. We will have to be at our very best to get a result on Saturday.”
Tommy O’Donnell and Rory Scannell were the latest Munster players to check into the province’s treatment room as head coach Johann van Graan admitted both Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway have only 50/50 chances of facing Toulon next Saturday.
Their injury list continues to rise as a Champions Cup quarter-final with the three-time European champions looms.
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 against Scarlets 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.”