Injured Earls ‘a big loss’ but Munster back Darren Sweetnam to deliver

Murray Kinsella reports from the Ricoh Arena

THERE’S LITTLE WAY of sugarcoating the fact that losing Keith Earls to injury puts a dent in Munster’s hopes of causing an upset against Saracens in Coventry tomorrow.

But, as with everything under head coach Johann van Graan, the Irish province are looking on the bright side.

The loss of Earls – the two-try man of the match in Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final win over Edinburgh – due to a thigh injury means Ireland international Darren Sweetnam gets another starting opportunity in Europe.

Keith Earls has travelled with Munster to Coventry. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Mike Haley missing the Edinburgh game through illness, Sweetnam was drafted into the team at Murrayfield at a late stage and delivered a strong showing in a season full of them.

Tomorrow will be the 25-year-old’s fourth start in Europe in the current campaign and van Graan, while disappointed for Earls, is excited to see how the Cork man does against an excellent Saracens back three.

“We gave Keith every opportunity to get through the week but we pulled him out at yesterday’s training,” said van Graan after Munster had their captain’s run in 22ºC sunshine in Coventry. “He wasn’t 100%.

“He’s a big loss. Obviously, it’s a game that he really wanted to play and he’s been in fantastic form. He played tremendous rugby with two big moments against Edinburgh.

“The next man in, Darren Sweetnam, he’s done it so many times this year. He’s played some excellent rugby throughout the year and this is a massive moment for him.

“In terms of the team, it’s not really a disruption, we’ve backed our squad the whole season and Sweets is in.”

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Despite the fact that he won’t be involved on the pitch, Earls has travelled with Munster to Coventry, keen to add to the effort in any way he can.

Sweetnam has been in fine form. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He’s one of our leadership group and one of our most experienced players,” said van Graan. “He’s here to give every bit of assistance that he can and every per cent at this stage matters. It’s great to have him around and that’s why he travelled.”

Captain Peter O’Mahony underlined Munster’s belief that Sweetnam can make an impact in Earls’ absence.

“He’s a quality rugby player,” said O’Mahony of Sweetnam. “It’s not like he’s not a regular in the squad, he’s had nine starts on the bounce. If anything, he’s match fit and ready to go. We’ve all got 100% faith in all the squad.” 

Van Graan said that lock Jean Kleyn – a doubt with a leg injury – “trained really well” all week and is fully fit to take on the challenge Saracens will pose up front. 

Munster’s win in Benetton last weekend posed a handful of selection decisions for van Graan this week but there were few surprises in the end, with Jack O’Donoghue backed in the number seven shirt ahead of Chris Cloete, who misses out altogether.

“Jack played really well against Edinburgh, he played blindside last weekend,” said van Graan. “I thought Chris played really well against Cardiff and Treviso. There were a few decisions we had to make but the team that beat Edinburgh got us over the line and got us here.

“A few guys in the squad pushed really hard against Treviso, but Jack was the man in the side and he performed really well in the 25 minutes he played against Edinburgh. So, I decided to go with him.”

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