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Gerry Thornley: Munster must keep things in perspective and roll with the punches

Chaos for URC while if and when Munster face Wasps it will be far from a level playing field

The United Rugby Championship appears to be in disarray and the Munster party of 49, stranded in Cape Town, must be enduring a stressful time as they face a logistical and time-constraining battle to return home and ensure they fulfil their prized Heineken Champions Cup games.

But then again, these things are relative and as they were driven from Cape Town airport to isolate in their five-star hotel, the Munster squad would undoubtedly have passed the many townships en route, some of which drift into the landscape farther than the eye can see.

For sure, these must be unnerving times for the travelling party, and even more so for their band of supporters. As with any group of 49 people, some are probably handling the stresses of their current circumstances better than others.

For those overseeing this trek, the postponement of their scheduled games against the Bulls and the Lions is now the least of their concerns as they seek to plot a way home from South Africa.


Indeed, for those in charge of the ship, such as Johann van Graan, team manager Niall O'Donovan and head of medics Dr Jamie Kearns, one imagines sleep deprivation is an inevitable by-product of their situation. Most likely too it is worse for those staff and players who have young families of their own.

But driving past those townships would have kept their own contrastingly minor plight in perspective.

What’s more, this latest Covid scare further illustrates the increasing inequalities between rich and poor, between the western world and the third world, between Europe and Africa.

South Africa has complained it is being punished, instead of applauded, for discovering Omicron, the new variant of Covid-19, and a statement by the South African foreign ministry on Saturday strongly criticised the travel bans.

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.

The bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.

The statement noted that the response to their discovery had contrasted sharply to new variants being discovered elsewhere in the world.

The vagaries of running a tournament across six countries and two hemispheres, especially given South Africa's low vaccination rate, have been highlighted again

On the BBC news last Sunday, African Union vaccine delivery alliance co-chair Ayoade Alakija said the inevitable emergence of the variant was entirely the fault of developed countries for their failure to vaccinate the rest of the world in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner. In South Africa, it is estimated that only around 24 per cent of the population have been vaccinated.

In a powerful interview, she said that instead the world’s richest countries had hoarded vaccines and the travel bans which came into effect over the weekend against 10 African countries, including South Africa, were based on politics, and not on science.

Seven games

“It is wrong,” Alakija said. “Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents?”

Indeed, had it not been for Boris Johnson swiftly imposing a travel ban from those 10 African countries to the UK, Munster's game against the Bulls in Loftus Versfeld last Saturday along with the other seven games scheduled to take place in South Africa last weekend and next would have gone ahead in front of crowds restricted to no more than 2,000.

Of course, the vagaries of running a tournament across six countries and two hemispheres, especially given South Africa’s low vaccination rate, have been highlighted again.

Hindsight is 20-20 vision and the organisers of the United Rugby Championship (URC), whose board will hold their latest crisis meeting today, probably now wish that they had gone ahead with contingency plans to have the South African sides hold their round six and seven ‘home’ games in Italy.

Understandably, the four South African sides were already weary enough of being on the road from their five-week tour to Europe for the first four rounds of the competition. They didn’t particularly fancy another three weeks after the November international window.

The South African Rugby Union has now brought forward a round of derbies which had been pencilled in during the Six Nations, namely the Sharks-Bulls and Stormers-Lions games, to the coming weekend.

Ostensibly, this is because the four squads had been in training anyway and this could open up space in the calendar for a possible rescheduling of the postponed matches.

But it’s hard to imagine Munster, Cardiff, Scarlets and Zebre, in particular, relishing return trips during the Six Nations and, besides, who’s paying for all these rearranged flights, rearranged hotel stays and 10-day periods in quarantine/isolation? It must be costing a fortune. In any event, the URC board need to devise contingency plans on the premise that the tournament cannot be completed as envisaged.

Each day in quarantine reduces their conditioning, whereas Wasps have been ticking over in the Premiership Cup

Right now though, no less than Cardiff, Munster's sole focus is securing safe passage home from South Africa and then securing Irish Government permission to complete whatever isolation period is required, while also being allowed to train, in time for them to play Wasps. Because there is no way Munster can play Wasps without those currently in South Africa being properly prepared.

"Time is ticking," as the Scarlets chairman Simon Muderack told BBC Radio Wales, with the Welsh squad quarantined in a Belfast hotel and due to play Bristol away in the Champions Cup on Saturday week.

Greater injustices

As with the Scarlets, Munster’s European opener against Wasps would be the first game in seven weeks for the majority of their match-day squad.

Each day in quarantine reduces their conditioning, whereas Wasps have been ticking over in the Premiership Cup and, having played Gloucester in the Premiership last Friday night, take on Worcester next Saturday.

Muderack also pointed out that Bristol, like Wasps, would have unhindered game-time preparation, nutrition and access to sunlight, as well as being able to spend time at home decompressing with their families.

These things are again relative, but there are health and safety issues at work here too.

For Munster to even play Wasps is thus largely out of their control, and it looks like being far from a level playing field, but if anyone can find a way in the Heineken Cup, it's undoubtedly them.

For if the pandemic has taught, or reminded, rugby and the sporting world anything, it is that it has to be adaptable and roll with the punches at any moment. And also that there are far greater injustices in the world.