Munster’s squad depth set for stern examination at altitude in Bloemfontein

JOHANN VAN GRAAN will know better than most the scale of the task facing Munster at altitude in Bloemfontein on Sunday, not least when the province’s resources have been stretched one way and then the other.

A 27-man travelling party arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon, but the Munster head coach is without as many as 24 senior players for this weekend’s Pro14 clash against the Cheetahs [KO 2.45pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport].

John Ryan has travelled with the Munster squad. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

With nine players now away on international duty, Munster departed Dublin for South Africa via Dubai on Monday morning with a youthful squad and Sunday’s round eight clash will certainly provide opportunities for those seeking to impress. 

Injuries have further compromised Munster to the extent that van Graan has included four academy players — namely Gavin Coombes, Liam Coombes, Shane Daly and Sean O’Connor — while the likes of Ciaran Parker, Jeremy Loughman, Kevin O’Byrne and Bill Johnston are set for important roles this week. 

Dan Goggin [knee], Tommy O’Donnell [ankle] and Rhys Marshall [hamstring] have been added to an ever-lengthening injury list, joining the likes of Jaco Taute, Conor Oliver, James Hart, Jack O’Donoghue, Chris Farrell and Calvin Nash in the rehab room in Limerick.

As many as 14 players are unavailable through injury, while van Graan is also shorn of the experience of Billy Holland as the second row didn’t travel due to personal reasons, meaning Tyler Bleyendaal — on his return from injury — will captain Munster at the Toyota Stadium.

After an encouraging five-game block, which saw the southern province take early control of their Heineken Champions Cup pool, Munster’s squad depth will be firmly tested by the Cheetahs. 

“We are pretty thin at this stage,” Van Graan admitted. “Nine guys away with the Ireland team, 14 guys injured and Billy Holland didn’t travel because of personal reasons. 24 guys not available but it’s very exciting for us to come to South Africa with a very young squad.

“Guys like Liam Coombes, Gavin Coombes, Shane Daly and Shaun O’Connor, they’re going to a difficult place to win. The Cheetahs have been playing very well over the past couple of weeks and we’re looking to use our squad and as we said on numerous occasions, you need to depth of your squad in games like these.”

Munster hope Sammy Arnold will come through his return to play protocols after failing a HIA during the last-gasp win over Glasgow Warriors last week, with Joe Schmidt requesting both he and John Ryan get more game time this weekend.

Van Graan outside the team hotel in Joburg. Source: Dom Barnardt/INPHO

Arnold’s strong early-season form was rewarded with a place in Schmidt’s November squad but the centre will hope for further minutes in South Africa with a view to being involved in the upcoming home Tests, provided he is given the all-clear to play. 

Tighthead prop Ryan, meanwhile, was set back by ankle problems early in the campaign and will look to hone his match sharpness against the Cheetahs having started Ireland’s first Test defeat to Australia in Brisbane back in June. 

“Joe requested for them to have more game time so they might start or might come from the bench,” van Graan explained. “With a pretty inexperienced squad, it’s great to have two international players who will go into Ireland camp after this trip. 

Munster had their first on-field session of the week yesterday and will continue preparations for Sunday’s game on Thursday, before leaving their base at the Montecasino complex to travel to Bloemfontein. 

Sitting third in Conference A, the province are still searching for their first away win of the campaign and van Graan says his side will need to be ‘firing on all cylinders’ if they are to avoid a fourth Pro14 defeat on the road. 

“Playing on a Sunday afternoon in Bloemfontein at altitude will be a real challenge for us, one which we’re looking forward to very much,” he added.

“The game last year was won in the final minute with a penalty at the scrum, and it’ll be a real tough battle. Our attack has improved a lot but this weekend we’ve got to fire on all cylinders – our attack, our defence and our kicking game.”

Van Graan will name his team to face the Cheetahs on Friday at midday.   

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