Key Munster players Keith Earls and James Cronin are unlikely to play any rugby for the remainder of 2017.
The duo are certain to miss the two European Cup matches against Leicester Tigers next month and are extremely doubtful for the run of interprovincial games against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day, Ulster on New Year’s Day and Connacht on January 6.
Munster’s new coach Johann van Graan attended the province’s High Performance Centre over the past couple of days and while leaving the brunt of the work for now to assistants Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, was bitterly disappointed to learn that the hamstring tear suffered by Earls is much more serious than first anticipated.
“It’s a bad hamstring injury,” Flannery revealed as he handled the first press conference since the departure of Rassie Erasmus.
“But on the positive side, if you were to lose a player, the one area where we are so well stocked is the wing with the likes of Zeebs, Conway, Sweets, Wootton, Ronan O’Mahony available and young lads like Calvin Nash knocking on the door. Keith is one of the best players in the world and we don’t want to lose him. But that’s rugby. I don’t know when he will be back.”
Forwards coach Flannery was encouraged by the return to full training of Jack O’Donoghue in the build-up to Sunday’s PRO14 game away to Zebre while also bemoaning the latest injury suffered by the luckless James Cronin in the recent Barbarians-Tonga game at Thomond Park.
“It could hardly be more unfortunate,” he commented. “I see James’s potential and how hard he trains. We just want to get him on the field and into a Munster jersey. We thought we were getting him back, he played well for the As, he came in and featured against the Dragons and we felt the best thing to do was to get him game time with the Barbarians (where he was injured).
“These things happen and Liam O’Connor has stepped up for us this year to fill the gap, although the reality is that we are thin on props. James popped his calf and that could keep him out for another six weeks.”
The news concerning other injured players like Tommy O’Donnell is more encouraging and there is also quiet optimism that Tyler Bleyendaal will be available for the games against Leicester at home on December 9 and away on 17.
And while there is considerable sympathy for Simon Zebo’s absence from the Irish squad, Flannery is adamant that his devotion to the cause of his native province hasn’t diminished in any way.
“He’s been the same Zeebs he’s always been — he has brought good energy to training and it’s been enjoyable having him around here,” said Flannery.
“Sometimes you don’t worry about the effort or the enthusiasm in these weeks when we lose the internationals because the guys here step up to the mark and make an impression. But having a bit of experience and a guy like Zeebs is a benefit to us because it’s what we lose when the guys go to Ireland.”
It can be safely assumed that Johann van Graan’s arrival will only gradually change the face of Munster rugby and nobody in the camp is expecting an instant transformation.
“If you expected someone to parachute in and perform miracles or to change things, that is not going to happen,” stressed Flannery. “What we’ve done is try to put in last week 80% of our plan for this coming week. We’ve put down a lot of the physical markers that we need to hit. Even before I came to this (press) briefing, we were sitting in with Johann and going through our plans.
“He is looking at them and looking at different ways to do things. It is always refreshing to get a new set of eyes. Felix and myself would always be looking to try and add layers to our gameplan without losing focus on what drives our game. Johann is certainly going to be a great sounding board for us,” he added.
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