It would have been understandable if Paul O’Connell was a little apprehensive heading into a tough 15th season with Munster, but the province’s talisman was all positives at Thomond Park yesterday.
O’Connell is delighted the many injuries that have dogged his career in recent years, and not least the arm fracture that brought his Lions career to a premature end during the summer, are finally behind him.
And while he jokes that his fitness levels are a long way behind many in the Munster squad, he knows he will catch up and be in tip-top shape by the time round three of the RaboDirect Pro12 comes around.
Even the departure of his great friend and teammate Ronan O’Gara hasn’t affected his outlook. While honest enough to admit that the boots of the famous number 10 will be extremely difficult to fill, he also insists that Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan and Jonny Holland have the capacity to measure up to the challenge.
“It’s going to be very different going out there without Rog,” he agreed. “I was only talking about it the other day to Peter (O’Mahony, the team’s new skipper) in terms of captaincy. Very often Rog would be making a lot of the decisions for me. When we got ahead in games, he was able to make the little tactical shift without ever having to be told or asked. He had this nose for knowing when it was time to do the simple things and putting a team into their own half and it’s going to be missed. But JJ and Ian, who have been there for the past few years, are fantastic rugby players, incredibly hungry, incredibly committed, really knowledgeable as well. They know how we want to play, what we need to do inside out. They’ve learned really well from Rog over the years and we also have Johnny Holland coming behind and he’s going to be a fantastic player as well.
“While it’s a big change to have Rog gone, it’s exciting times as well and I really think these guys are ready to step up. If we were in this situation a few years ago, I don’t know if you could say that but now I think it’s exciting, disappointing that Rog is going, but exciting also for what the three other out-halves are going to bring.”
O’Connell has come through pre-season “injury-free”.
“From a fitness point of view, I’d say I’m unfit, from an injury point of view, I’d say I’m injury free,” he stated. “I was back running today and doing a little bit of weights on the arm and all that is going well. Obviously, I’ve had a few weeks off since the Lions tour with my arm and stuff so I have a little bit of catching up to do. Some of the guys are on week eight already and it is incredible to see what benefits they can get from training full-time five days in a row then getting two off to recover.”
The captaincy has now moved on to Peter O’Mahony but he’s a wise young man who knows full well the value of having a man of O’Connell’s experience and stature at his shoulder.
“We need to be more accurate and patient and hang on to the ball when we get close to the other team’s line and come away with points when you get there,” O’Connell mused.
“We didn’t convert as much as we should or as much as good teams need to. We also need to mix up our game more and read the flow of the game even though the Clermont game was disappointing because I thought we had a great mixture in our attack. If you can put the ball wide and also take a team on up front, and wear out their forwards, both tactics can work well.”
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