A Munster squad of 27 players comprised largely of bright, young talent, supported by a few more experienced players, flew out yesterday to South Africa to prepare for Sunday’s Guinness PRO14 clash with the Toyota Cheetahs.
Head coach Johann van Graan will be returning to his native land having clarified at the weekend that he will be staying with Munster until at least 2020, dismissing rumours he was planning to return home as boss of Super Rugby side The Bulls.
Sunday’s fixture comes immediately on the back of the Cheetahs’ win over Cardiff Blues on Saturday, their first PRO14 victory of the campaign, and so they may be running into form at just the wrong time for van Graan’s much understrength squad.
Two first-half tries by left wing Rabz Maxwane and another by scrum-half and captain Shaun Venter helped the Cheetahs into a 21-3 lead at the interval and they subsequently did well to quell a determined second-half Cardiff rally to win 21-10.
They still prop up Conference A with nine points after seven rounds, six behind Zebre in second last place.
The Cheetahs are coached by nine-times capped former Springbok centre/out-half Franco Smith.
He worked for a couple of years in Europe with Treviso who he previously represented as a player. Their key men are likely to be half-backs Venter and number 10 Tian Shoeman.
Munster are no strangers to the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein having scraped a 19-17 victory over the Cheetahs there last April.
Conor Murray scored their only try and also landed a long-range penalty, with JJ Hanrahan landing three penalties and a conversion.
This time round, however, Munster will be without the 13 players included in the Irish squad for the November internationals, starting with the game against Italy at Soldier Field, Chicago, on Saturday. There is every indication that Munster wing Darren Sweetnam will be in that side after a series of outstanding performances this season, a development enthusiastically supported by van Graan.
“It is three weeks in a row now for Sweets,” lauded van Graan. “To be fair, I think he has been our best player this season… going all the way back to London Irish in pre-season, he has been doing brilliantly.”
The coach was similarly delighted with Keith Earls on the other wing before his switch to outside centre because of an injury to Sammy Arnold : “Earlsy was brilliant on the wing firstly. He carved up the D and added to that outside position where he has not played a lot this year.
That was a world-class performance and all good for Ireland if they pick him for the next few test matches.”
The absence of so much talent will, of course, make Munster’s task all the more difficult at the weekend.
“We are travelling with a squad of 27 players and are really thin at this stage,” van Graan observed.
“We are going to Joburg this year, last year we went to Cape Town for a two-week trip. It is very important with the Cheetahs at altitude on Sunday afternoon that we are going to prepare at altitude.
“It will be a big challenge for us with a very young side going down to South Africa. This is our last fixture before taking our November break.”
MUNSTER SQUAD: James Cronin, Jeremy Loughman, Ciaran Parker, John Ryan, Stephen Archer, Kevin O’Byrne, Mike Sherry, Darren O’Shea, Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley, Sean O’Connor, Arno Botha, Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes, Neil Cronin, Alby Mathewson, Duncan Williams, Tyler Bleyendaal, JJ Hanrahan, Bill Johnston, Ian Keatley, Sammy Arnold, Shane Daly, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton, Liam Coombes, Mike Haley.
By Charlie Mulqueen – Irish Examiner