A group of 34 Munster players and staff departed Cape Town on Tuesday night, leaving behind 14 others in South Africa after a fourth round of PCR testing identified four further positive Covid-19 cases.
The 14, a mix of players and staff members, will see out their respective isolation periods at a designated quarantine hotel in Cape Town but the majority of the travelling party were permitted to leave for Ireland having received negative results, ending an anxious six-day period since the emergence of the omicron variant of Covid-19 prompted the postponement of their two United Rugby Championship matches in South Africa and travel restrictions for the region prompted a scramble to leave the country.
Munster had already reported 10 confirmed cases but the fourth round of PCR testing increased that number, leaving 34 players and staff members to board a KLM flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam at 00:20 on Wednesday morning (10:20pm Tuesday Irish time).
"In a hugely positive development the wider Munster touring party departed Cape Town tonight after a group of 34 players and staff received negative results on completing a fourth round of PCR testing in six days," the statement said.
"Team management worked tirelessly on securing scheduled flights at short notice and the group are expected to land in Dublin on Wednesday evening.
"Another four positive cases were identified in Tuesday’s round of PCR testing and a total group of 14 will see out their respective isolation periods at the designated quarantine hotel in Cape Town.
"This is a difficult time for all players and staff involved and we are very mindful of their wellbeing and the understandable concern from family and friends at home. The group will be well looked after with team liaisons Warren Morris and Kubaan Lorens remaining on site with medical support provided daily.
"As outlined by the government earlier this week, on arrival from South Africa the returning players and staff will follow mandatory self-isolation at their own locations.
"Munster Rugby would like to say a huge thank you to the management and staff at Southern Sun The Cullinan Hotel for all their help and efforts over the last few days, especially at a time when last-minute support and requirements were needed for a large group. The contribution Warren and Kubaan made during this time cannot be overstated and we are indebted to the duo for their professionalism and support.
"Again, we wish to take this opportunity to thank the Irish government, the IRFU, South Africa Rugby, URC, and the health authorities for their assistance in particular with regards to facilitating the safe return of our staff and players."
That cohort set to return home still face another 10 days of self-isolation on arrival in Dublin and there are efforts by the province to bring in short-term signings for this month’s European pool fixtures.
Getting those incoming signings registered, however, may rely on a blanket change in Champions Cup competition rules rather than special dispensation, theunderstands.
Both Munster and Cardiff had the majority of their squads in Cape Town having been forced to isolate in individual hotel rooms following confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their ranks, two of them with the Welsh club.
With another 10-day self-isolation period required on their arrival in Dublin, expected on Wednesday evening, the latest developments have delivered a serious setback to Munster’s bid to field a competitive matchday squad of 23 players for their upcoming Champions Cup opener at Wasps in England a week on Sunday and at home to Castres six days later.
There are just 18 fit Munster players - one less than the competition rules permit for a matchday squad - including eight internationals and seven academy players as well as five injured senior players - currently training at the province’s High Performance Centre in Limerick having missed the trip to South Africa for what were supposed to be URC games against the Bulls in Pretoria and Lions in Johannesburg.
The emergence of the new Covid variant prompted the postponement of all URC games on South African soil last weekend and next but while Scarlets and Zebre Parma produced a clean bill of health in their fit to fly PCR testing and departed Cape Town on a charter bound for Dublin last Sunday, both Munster and Cardiff were forced to return to their hotels in the city and resumed isolating in their rooms.
The members of the Munster travelling party who tested positive were described on Tuesday in an update from the province as being “thankfully well and will continue to be monitored medically”, yet reports emerging from the Cardiff camp suggest a less rosy picture with a club source telling Wales Online: “We have got reports of people having panic attacks, we have reports of anxiety and mental health issues.
“We are having to put the WRU mental well-being officer on constant call.”
The health and welfare of all concerned is clearly the priority in both camps but with the clock ticking down to the Wasps game on December 12, it is understood head coach Johann van Graan had been working to bring in new players to enable his side to fulfil their fixtures.
Aside from being unable to field the minimum 19 players in a matchday squad, Munster have just three fit front-rowers at home - hooker Declan Moore, first-year academy tighthead prop Mark Donnelly and Ireland loosehead Dave Kilcoyne - when the European competition rules state there must be six front-row players included in each matchday squad.
Yet competition organisers EPCR are understood to be unwilling to allow special dispensation to Munster and Cardiff, who host defending champions Toulouse in the Welsh capital on December 11, to make changes to their registered squads.
It is believed it will require a competition-wide change in the rules to allow all 24 teams to amend their personnel lists lest the EPCR stand accused of a lack of fairness and that may require assent at board level, whose members include the participant unions and leagues.