Munster face anxious wait over severity of Ronan injury
They call it 'Blue Monday' and yesterday was certainly clouded over with gloomy significance for luckless Munster back-rower Niall Ronan after it was confirmed that a knee ligament injury has ruled him out of this Saturday's crucial Heineken Cup tie against Northampton.
Munster medics will face an anxious wait as they hope to confirm that Ronan's injury is not even more serious.
Ronan (below) has shot to prominence this season in the enforced absence of one of Munster's long-term injury lay-offs, David Wallace, but after shaking off a knee injury before last Saturday's tie against Castres, he failed to last 10 minutes after picking up another, unconnected injury.
"Ronan had a scan today that showed he's suffered ligament damage to his left knee but he will have to have further examination before the full extent of the injury can be ascertained," said a Munster spokesperson last night after Ronan became the third openside to join the casualty list this term.
As they have done with all their other major injury setbacks this season -- notably to Keith Earls, Jerry Flannery, Doug Howlett, Wallace and Felix Jones -- Munster will need to adjust as they seek the win in Milton Keynes that would guarantee a home quarter-final.
The IRFU will also be a little more than keen on this weekend's results as they anticipate a financial boost close to €1.5m as the already qualified two-time champions Munster and Leinster could also be joined by Ulster in the last eight.
"Commercially, the tournaments have stepped up significantly and the clubs are seeing significant commercial progress from their participation in our competitions," according to ERC chief executive Derek McGrath.
"A look at last season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals shows that two quarter-finalist clubs on average shared €1m profit for each match from the net receipts alone.
"So the prize is big, and if you add on top of that the meritocracy payments which come from ERC's central funds, just over €400,000 goes to each country of each of the qualifiers for the quarter-finals.
"You're talking about a shared fund of almost €2m from each of the quarter-finals. This is just one of the reasons why clubs are so ambitious to reach the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup."
Munster have been handicapped by their failure to amass bonus points during the qualifying phase, mainly due to their inability to convert pressure into tries in all of their unprecedented run of five successive opening wins.
Ronan's fellow back-rower James Coughlan is confident that Munster's approach work can soon reap its maximum rewards, with this Saturday the perfect opportunity to shine.
"We need to carry this success into next week and to add polish. It's about driving on and making sure we've a home quarter-final. We have to go up another notch."
Notwithstanding Munster's dwindling resources in the back row after Ronan's injury travails, Peter O'Mahony's exemplary form and robust physicality remains an encouraging boon for the side, even if his trio's protection of Conor Murray will demand improvement this weekend.
Captain Paul O'Connell has highlighted the manner in which the less experienced breed of Munster players have broken through and forced the rest of the group to follow their lead, rather than be cowed by the elder players in the squad.
"I don't think he (O'Mahony) needs to curb his aggression," said the captain. "That's the leadership we want and people are following him. When you get young guys coming in, and they're looking to be the best on the field and not just tread water, it gives the team a massive lift.
"Every time he's played he's been great. Rugby is a physical game and that's how he plays. He's a great guy to play behind and beside. He's an example to every young player, what attitude can do for you.
"Like all the young guys coming through, that sets them apart. They all have the same skills but attitude sets them apart."
Munster will face a Northampton side gunning for revenge for what they perceive to be a number of refereeing inconsistencies in the build-up to Ronan O'Gara's incredible drop-goal winner in the opening pool tie between these teams in November.
"There's no bigger occasion than playing Munster in the Heineken Cup," said full-back Ben Foden. "We owe them one.We look forward to that -- we want to keep the winning ways going."
Coach Jim Mallinder also has his eyes on redemption. "We have got one back on the Scarlets last weekend after not deserving to lose to them first time around but we were more disappointed to lose to Munster out there when we thought we probably should have won the game," he said.
"We are at Stadium:MK, it's a packed house and we will be looking to get our own back. We need to show we are a good team that can compete with the best teams in Europe -- that's our incentive."