Fineen Wycherley’s return to fitness after three months in the “giraffe sanctuary” could not be better timed as Munster wave farewell to their Six Nations players for the best part of the next eight weeks.
The sight of a fit lock roaming free on the training field has been a rare sighting indeed at Munster’s High Performance Centre in recent months, such has been the injury blight among second rowers at the province.
Wycherley’s return to training follows a shoulder injury that has sidelined the 25-year-old since early October.
That placed the west Cork forward in the hands of Munster’s overstretched medical staff who also have been dealing with injuries to fellow locks Tom Ahern (shoulder), Paddy Kelly (head), Kiran McDonald (arm) and RG Snyman (knee), all of whom remain unavailable for this Saturday’s United Rugby Championship visit to Treviso’s Stadio Monigo to take on Benetton.
All of which explains why yesterday, forwards coach Andi Kyriacou not only welcomed back the fit-again Wycherley but also paid tribute to Jean Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne, the senior locks who have been shouldering the second-row burden in recent weeks.
Beirne will be in Portugal, training with Ireland along with seven other Munster players preparing for the championship opener against Wales in Cardiff on February 4 when their province kicks off in Italy on Saturday. He played in seven of Munster’s last nine matches, each of them for the full 80 minutes.
Kleyn has played them all but the end is in sight.
Once the Benetton challenge has been negotiated this weekend, Munster will be able to down tools for a brief period before they resume their URC campaign at home to Ospreys on February 17 and few deserve the break more than Kleyn.
“It’s one of the most physically challenging positions on the field, I believe,” forwards coach Kyriacou, a former hooker, said on Tuesday.
“The modern-day second row is definitely more like a back-row player than they ever have been, certainly the way we play, the style of rugby that Mike (Prendergast) from an attack point of view and Denis (Leamy) from a defensive point of view is asking of the guys.
“There’s a lot of metres covered, a lot of high-speed metres covered and then the collision element of the game which we build our gameplan around as well, so there’s a lot asked of these guys.
“So, more Jean than Tadhg, obviously Tadhg got a little break there just after Christmas, those two weeks. Jean’s had to keep on going for us but he’ll get a week next week when we can all recover, catch our breath.
“But just a testament to those lads who’ve gone week in, week out for us and we’re not seeing any drop off from them, and they don’t miss training. They’re just ridiculous athletes and we’re very lucky to have them.”
As for Wycherley, Kyriacou said: “It's been great to finally given him the all clear to be involved. He's been in and out of certain aspects of training over the past couple of weeks, but a real lift with the lads going up the road to camp, and also the 'giraffe sanctuary' in the medical room, all of these two-metre high lads rehabbing.
“We're ecstatic to have Fin back and ready to play. He's ready to go.”
It looks less likely Mike Haley will be involved, however, following his ankle injury in Toulouse on Sunday with the full-back due to go for a scan this week while wing Simon Zebo is also ruled out due to illness.
Beirne, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray and captain Peter O’Mahony will all be unavailable for their province in Treviso but Scotland new boy Ben Healy is expected to return from his first Test squad involvement in Edinburgh in time for the trip before returning for a potential debut in the Calcutta Cup clash with England at Twickenham a week on Saturday.
Their absence will be felt this weekend, although it is likely some of those in the Ireland squad may be released for the URC games against Ospreys at Thomond Park and Scarlets at Musgrave Park in Cork on March 3. Regardless, Kyriacou insisted there could be no drop off in work ethic or the rate of progress made in recent months from those players that remain at the province.
“Our performances have mirrored the amount of work we've been putting in away from matchday in training. We're seeing improvement week on week around a lot of aspects of our game, and we don't, at any point, envisage us dropping away.
“It's the standards we're setting ourselves week to week and day to day, and it doesn't matter what players are available. They live by those standards and that's what we're all driving.”