“It certainly hasn’t been ideal.”
12 days ago, Johann van Graan and his Munster squad were getting ready for a United Rugby Championship encounter with the Bulls, in Pretoria. A call came into the Munster camp that would tip everything sideways.
The ‘Omicron’ strain of the Covid-19 virus had been identified by South African scientists. It is still unclear where the variant came from but as it was first identified in South Africa, many countries reacted by immediately restricting travel from there.
As if that was not enough, players from Munster, Cardiff and Scarlets started to test positive for Covid. It began with a couple and, as this virus is wont to do, spread quickly.
We were eventually left with all three sides, and Italian club Zebre, in a scramble to get home, and get as many of their travelling party back home safely too. When the flights finally set off, over 20 players and backroom staff from the affected squads were forced to stay behind.
Scarlets have already thrown in the towel and accepted a forfeit of their Friday night game against Bristol Bears. Their European hopes are close to being dashed on the rocks before a ball has been touched. Munster and Cardiff intend to play their respective games against Wasps and Toulouse.
Speaking to us from a hotel room, well removed from the makeshift Munster squad that is preparing to take on Wasps, Johann van Graan tried to articulate how disruptive the past couple of weeks have been.
“I remain the coach,” insists Johann van Graan
“It has certainly been challenging,” says van Graan, “but nobody has been very sick, and we’ve got some brilliant people at Munster.
“We are very well aligned as an organisation – from everyone that has been left in Cape Town, those that are quarantining in hotels, everyone at the High Performance Centre and all the staff have been brilliant.”
The South African is still not clear if he will be able to travel to Coventry for Sunday’s game but he stresses, “I remain the coach. I pick the team.”
Academy coach Ian Costello is ‘running the operation’ at the HPC, in Limerick. Munster will be forced to select their match-day 23 from their academy, international players that did not travel to South Africa and another few that did but could be cleared in time for kick-off.
“There will potentially be certain players available… what we have learned is that Sunday is a long way away,” van Graan said. “Anything is possible, at this stage.”
What further complicates an already head-scratching matter is the possibility that some of the players and staff that are isolating in hotel rooms, after returning from South Africa, may have tested positive for Covid after landing back in Ireland.
“It was never a case of ‘Are we going to play?’“
On Tuesday, Munster Rugby nominated an additional 22 players to be registered for the province’s Champions Cup squad. Two of those additional players – Patrick Campbell and Tony Butler – come from GAA backgrounds in Cork and Clare.
Butler is a former St Flannan’s College pupil, and player, and is currently studying in University of Limerick, along with training with Munster’s academy. He plays his club rugby with Garryowen.
“Our theme, last year, was about being prepared for change,” van Graan says. “But I’m not, for one second, going to say if you told me two weeks ago that these things were going to happen, that I could even imagine it.
“I’m certainly not going to try and talk around that, but that’s the beauty of rugby and of our squad. As Pete [O’Mahony] said earlier, it is certainly not the worst thing to have happened. Nobody has passed away during the week. It is a strong group of people…
“Rugby is very secondary at this stage. We are going to pick a team for Sunday, we are going to fly to Coventry, play the game and give it our best shot.”
While the EPCR stated it was opening up player registrations until later today, van Graan says Munster never seriously considered looking outside the province for additional players or loans.
“We considered, at first, do we have enough resources at Munster Rugby,” he says. “The answer was a definite yes. We never looked to the outside. We looked to our home-grown players first.”
“It was never a case of ‘Are we going to play?’” van Graan adds. “Yes, we are going to play this game, and we’re going to supplement that with players from all over the province.
“We’re going to give it our best shot and back guys in a Munster jersey this Sunday afternoon.”
Van Graan was keen to include the 14 from Munster’s travelling party, who remain in South Africa, in his discussion on what has been a challenging 12 days [with more to come].
Watt bikes and games consoles have been provided for those left behind at a Cape Town hotel while they have been included in a couple of online team meetings.
“It’s important to know, as well,” van Graan says, “that this isn’t finished. Covid is not going away… this will be an ongoing thing so fair play to Munster and the IRFU for all the support they have given us.”