Munster head coach Rob Penney wants his players to hit the ground running this week as they prepare for the return of Heineken Cup action to Thomond Park on Sunday.
The Reds readied themselves for their Pool 6 home clash with Perpignan with a league victory in Wales for the second time in six days on Friday having beaten the Newport Gwent Dragons 18-14 at Rodney Parade. That maintained a lead at the top of the RaboDirect Pro12 table they had opened up at Cardiff Blues the previous Saturday. While the availability of forwards Mike Sherry (knee) and James Coughlan (eye) to face the French Top14 side will be assessed today, Penney sees plenty to look forward to with his ranks boosted by some key returnees.
Asked after the victory in Newport if the focus had already turned to the Perpignan game, Penney said: “Absolutely, there will be some learnings but we will look forward. We will welcome back the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray and hopefully (the injured) Donnacha Ryan is not too far away and we can get some really good progress early on this week so we are really clear by the end of the week and greet Perpignan with a great Thomond Park raucous welcome Sunday.”
Following their exertions with Ireland during the Guinness Series, O’Mahony and Murray will resume provincial duty next weekend against a side beaten at home in the league last Friday by Clermont Auvernge, while Paul O’Connell, Munster’s third starter in Joe Schmidt’s team that faced New Zealand a week ago, got through his allotted 50 minutes under the IRFU player welfare programme against the Dragons.
There was also the encouraging sight for Penney of Keith Earls, James Downey and Ian Keatley returning from injury, Keatley turning in a man of the match performance, the fly-half kicking all 18 points, including a 52-metre penalty. Of Earls, who spent 10 minutes in the sin bin on his comeback after five weeks out with tendonitis in a knee, Penney said: “It is good to get out of that with Earlsy in good shape and having got 70 minutes under his belt it is really positive heading into a mammoth couple of weeks.
“I thought Ian’s game management was superb too. In that first-half, he kept the ball in front of us, nailed a vital goal and then in the second-half I thought he pumped the ball into the corners well, kept the boys on the front foot and ran a couple of times very nicely and we got a couple of breaches on the back of those. And then when we applied the pressure we were rewarded with penalties.”
Penney’s satisfaction extends to the whole squad after delivering two away wins in successive weeks ahead of the challenging European double-header with pool leaders Perpignan.
“To come to both Cardiff and the Dragons, you’re always going to be challenged and I’m proud of our lads to work their way into positions to take points out of both games and come away from this six-day period with nine points.”
No decision on the availability of Sherry or Coughlan will be made until further medical assessments today while new signing Gerhard van den Heever, who is ineligible to face Perpignan, was undergoing an x-ray to determine the extent of the hand injury he suffered in the second-half of his debut against the Dragons.
“He got taken out off the ball and injured a hand in the collision. He was sort of blindsided,” Penney said before giving the South African wing a positive review of his first Munster appearance since joining from Western Province. “He did really good. I thought he got around the park okay and inserted himself a couple of times. Things didn’t go his way in terms of open-field running but he showed glimpses of what he possesses. I’m sure he’s relieved to get that one out of the way and I look forward to some great performances out of the young man.”
Recovering Ryan may be ready for Perpignan
Munster could be poised to spring Ireland lock Donnacha Ryan back into action for one or both of the Heineken Cup pool games with Perpignan over the next 13 days.
Ryan, who turns 30 on December 11, has not played since the Heineken Cup round two win at home over Gloucester on October 19 when he suffered a knee injury medics initially believed would keep him sidelined until the New Year.
A fortnight ago, head coach Rob Penney said Ryan was recovering well and was ahead of schedule and this weekend, after Munster beat Newport Gwent Dragons in Wales to stay top of the RaboDirect Pro12 league, Penney dropped a broad hint the forward could be back as early as this Sunday’s Thomond park clash with the French Catalans.
Citing the imminent return this weekend of internationals Conor Murray and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony following Ireland’s November Tests, Penney added: “And hopefully Donnacha Ryan is not too far away.”
Ryan, who was scheduled to return to contact training last week having returned to running towards the end of last month, further stirred the pot when he told Tipp FM:
“I am well ahead of schedule so hopefully I can get back a lot sooner than anticipated.”
He also warned: “If you end up rushing back before an injury is ready you’ll end up pushing it and you might be longer to get back. “You have to be a bit cautious, but the medical staff are doing a fantastic job inside with it, so things are positive enough so far.
“I’m hopeful of getting back playing sooner rather than later.”
Ryan has certainly done his homework on Perpignan, to whom Munster will travel for the return fixture on December 14.
“They are very disciplined, they are very set-piece orientated and they don’t commit many people to the ruck, they just fan out. It’s going to be difficult,” he said.
“We’ll have to focus on forcing them to come in and ruck, get them off their feet because they are very big men.”
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