Johann van Graan has praised his Munster players for embracing the “opportunity” of a return to rugby under unique circumstances following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The head coach is overseeing week two of his squad’s re-emergence from lockdown as all the provinces prepare for a resumption of the 2019-20 Guinness PRO14 campaign on August 22 with the first of two rounds of interprovincial derbies ahead of the play-off semi-finals and final in September.
With the 2020-21 season due to get underway just a fortnight later on October 3, Van Graan is preparing his players for what is effectively a 15-month season albeit under much-changed conditions due to the restrictions still in place to protect against the coronavirus. Returning to duty in training pods of seven last week saw the squad back at the High Performance Centre in Limerick for the first time since March, this time joined by new signings Matt Gallagher from Saracens, Roman Salanoa from Leinster, and South Africa World Cup-winning duo Damian de Allende and RG Snyman.
There are also five newly-promoted academy graduates in the group, now split into three groups of up to 14 players with four current academy players augmenting the squad.
“It’s not life as we knew it and rugby training currently certainly isn’t what we’ve known before but that’s an opportunity and that’s exciting and all credit to the staff and the players that have embraced this,” Van Graan told the Munster Rugby website. “We’ve got to make the best out of it and hopefully become a better team at the back end of this.
“We’re going to go for two more weeks to get a four-week block and we’ll give the guys nine days away from the HPC then.
“We’ll restart on July 27 for three weeks of training before the first game week versus Leinster. So all in all, seven weeks of training to go. We won’t be into full training, scrummaging, lineout, rucking, mauling, full contact until July 27 so it’s important that we build up the players through this phase and make sure we get their bodies right because they haven’t played a game of rugby for a very long time.
“We’re constantly learning from other sports and codes about what they have been doing. We’ve been onto some of our friends in New Zealand and in Australia, which restart their competitions soon, to make sure that we learn from them and their return to not only training but also playing.”
Even the additions to the squad have had to introduce themselves differently to their new team-mates, the head coach explained.
“We’ve only been in groups of seven so everyone has met each other on Microsoft Teams. Damian, RG, Roman, and Matt have introduced themselves, they’ve been in with their small groups, and they’ll meet a few more guys this week, and we’ll hopefully be together as a squad again when we can actually see each other on July 27, but great to have the four of them in our system and it’s very rewarding from a Munster point of view that we can promote five lads from the academy up to the senior team.
“We’re going to need this squad of 44 players plus the 15 academy lads, close to 60 players over the next 15 months because this will be a massive season ahead starting with the first block of PRO14 rugby and then starting the season on October 3.
“There’ll be international windows coming up and then at the back end of the season there’s a Lions tour going to South Africa. So a fantastic season to look forward to and from a Munster point of view, we’ll just take it day by day.
“It’s important that we get our players on the pitch on August 22 and build them up for let’s call it the first competition or four-week block and then refocus for the start of the new season on October 3.”