Rassie Erasmus has given Munster’s young midfield hopefuls two pre-season games to stake their claim to a starting place for the new campaign before looking to bring in a more experienced replacement for long-term injury victim Francis Saili.
The new director of rugby yesterday admitted his hopes for a strong start to his first campaign at the helm had been dealt a blow with the news twice-capped All Black outside centre Saili, 25, had on Monday undergone a second surgical procedure on his right shoulder, ruling him out of action for “three to four months”.
Yet rather than reaching for his contacts book and beginning a search for a replacement straight away, the South African is prepared to hand a chance to candidates within his existing pool.
Munster start their pre- season campaign against Guinness PRO12 rivals Zebre in Waterford on Friday night, the first of two friendlies before the league kicks off at Scarlets on September 3, with Donncha O’Callaghan’s Worcester Warriors visiting Cork on August 26.
By the time that fixture is over Erasmus is hoping he has no need to call for reinforcements from outside the camp, with a fit-again Cian Bohane and academy backs Dan Goggin and David Johnston all in line for an opportunity to grab with both hands.
With new signing from Ulster Sammy Arnold injured as well as Saili, and Keith Earls another capable option unavailable due to IRFU player management policy, another who could be handed a chance is Colm O’Shea, picked by Joe Schmidt for Ireland’s non-cap international against the Barbarians in May 2015 but released by Leinster this summer and currently training with Munster.
“Look, there are young guys like Dan Goggin and those guys who will now certainly have the opportunity to put up their hands in the next two games,” Erasmus said before training at UL yesterday.
“I think the next two warm-up games will definitely be a gauge for us to see will we be okay in that area into the season. If we’re not we’ll obviously have to make a plan.
“I don’t like just bringing in guys for the sake of it. They must really be better. I think the boys we have here have two weeks to prove themselves in that position...
“If in these two weeks nobody puts up their hands and grabs that opportunity then for sure we’ll have to.”
Erasmus made no attempt at concealing his disappointment Saili had been unable to continue his rehabilitation from the initial shoulder surgery he had undergone at the end of his first season having signed for Munster from the Blues in Auckland.
“It is a huge blow, not because it is Francis, but because of what we have been trying to build over the last five or six weeks which he was a great part of,” Erasmus said.
“A lot of the planning with the guys, although he is a young guy, he certainly has played almost like a senior player in the team. We will miss him on and off the park. But I know being the guy that he is I’m sure he will contribute off the park. I would be lying if I said it was not a big blow.”
With Saili possibly missing the first four rounds of a Champions Cup pool campaign which will pit Munster against heavyweight operators Racing 92, Leicester and Glasgow Warriors before Christmas, Erasmus will be desperate to solve his midfield issues as quickly as possible.
The former Springbok flanker has problems at fly-half also and will hand gametime this weekend to Ireland U19 fly-half Conor Fitzgerald as back-up to Ian Keatley in the absence of Johnny Holland (hamstring), Bill Johnston (shoulder) and Tyler Bleyendaal (thigh), who is pencilled in to face Worcester.
“Potentially it’s there but injury-wise it’s a bit of a worry for us. It is what it is and we’ll have to find situations around it. When I came here I didn’t think 10 and 13 would be a problem, depth-wise, so it was a bit of a surprise.
“But otherwise, apart from that, if there wasn’t injuries I think there’s potential in the squad there, but it is a bit of a blow.”
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