Paul O’Connell may be a welcome sight in a Munster jersey after almost five months out through injury but for his team-mates that also means listening to another plain-speaking voice in the dressing room.
O’Connell’s recovery from December 31 surgery to correct a bulging disc is such that he feels just one more game away from reaching full match fitness. That game looks set to come on Friday night in Glasgow after the 33-year-old lock successfully came through 80 minutes in his first senior outing for Munster since October in last Saturday’s 22-0 victory over Connacht at Musgrave Park.
The intervening period has seen O’Connell watch his team-mates struggle with form, particularly during the Six Nations window, with many placing the blame on the new game plan being deployed by head coach Rob Penney.
Munster, however, turned a corner against Connacht in Cork at the weekend and worked out that rather than slavishly throwing the ball out wide at every opportunity, Penney’s plan is simply to strike the right balance between expansive and pragmatic rugby.
And rather than detecting more clarity about what is required from the new boss than he experienced during the two games he managed back in October in the Heineken Cup against Racing Metro and Edinburgh, O’Connell said Munster’s inconsistent form was down to bad play.
“For me, I wasn’t even playing and I felt there was always clarity and I think most of the players were that way,” O’Connell said. “We probably just weren’t playing well at times as well.
“If you are running into touch or you are dropping balls, it doesn’t matter what game plan you are playing you are going to put yourself under pressure.”
“You need to play error-free rugby, it doesn’t matter what game plan you are playing, whether you are playing one-out runners or whether you are playing wide or whatever you are doing. I think sometimes when we don’t play well, people just like to blame the game plan for some reason, at the moment, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Nor, to O’Connell’s mind, is there anything new about Penney’s approach of telling his players to attack the spaces and play what’s in front of them rather than stick to a rigid game plan.
“I think we always looked for space,” O’Connell said, “we probably weren’t that good at finding it! “I remember one of the first things Deccie (Kidney) was saying whenever I came into the squad, ‘we’ll attack space, whether we have to kick it there or run it there, that’s what we’ll do’. That’s what Rob is trying to give us, maybe an easier framework to find that space.
“Very early on when Rob came in the biggest thing he was talking about was all about our kicking game, and how a good kicking game allows you find space with the hands easier. “I just think at times we haven’t mixed it up as well as we needed to and I think Rob would probably be the first one to say that as well. It is all positive from the players point of view, from the players I speak to anyway it is all positive. Hopefully it continues that way now as things move on.”
As Munster bid to keep their hopes of a RaboDirect Pro12 play-off place alive with a win in Glasgow on Friday and a Heineken Cup quarter-final at Harlequins the following weekend, O’Connell’s return to the colours could not have come at a better time with his team-mates and Penney all praising the positive effect his presence is having. O’Connell played down his part in it, saying: “I think from my experience when I played as a younger player, when experienced players came back into the side it always gave the side a lift.
“I remember going to the 2003 World Cup having not played with Woody (Keith Wood) for a long time and just to have him around the place was great. Any player coming back in the middle of the season always gives the team a lift. It’s a different voice for them. They’ve had plenty of players and leaders but I’ve come in and I’m a different voice and it freshens things up a little bit.
“The same with Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan….they’ve had a good break away from Munster (with Ireland) and are full of enthusiasm to come back. They’ll be a different impetus for the lads who have been around for the last few months.
“It’s nice to be well thought of. It’s good that coincidentally we got a good result on the day I came back. It’s nice to have nice things said about you but it’s the same…a different voice freshens things up.”
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