O’Connell on the road back

YOU sense you’re in the company of a true champion when he takes a positive approach to missing out on six months and at least as many international caps at a crucial stage of his career.

Yet that was the refreshing attitude of Paul O’Connell ahead of his return to big-time rugby tonight when he will line out for Munster against Connacht in the quarter-final of the Celtic League at Musgrave Park (7.35pm).

“The last game I played was against New Zealand in the first Test last June,” he recalled. “I injured my shoulder, and whatever way I slept on the long haul flight coming home, I woke up with a pain down my right leg.

“After five weeks of intensive physio and rest, I was getting nowhere with it. There was no improvement and it was getting worse and worse. The problem was a bulging disc in my lower back. What happens is that the disc comes out through the vertebrae, it bangs off the nerve going down your leg and you get a pain like you have a torn hamstring.

“It went down all the way to my ankle. I just couldn't bend over and so after having MRI scans and so on eventually I had an operation. Mick O’Sullivan, the surgeon at Cork

University Hospital did the job and it seems to have been a success. He removed bits of disc that had moved and were touching the nerve and causing the pain.”

Given that O’Connell stands 6’ 5” and weighs in at 17 stone, one can imagine the frustration he endured at spending the next 10 days flat on his back. Ever the pragmatic one, however, he put the time to positive use.

“It was annoying, but it wasn’t that bad. I’m still studying computer engineering at UL, so I was able to get a few exams out of the way, and by the time I was finished I was back into light training and having rehab on my back.

“That was after about three months. Since then, I’ve had two months training and a lot of rehab, although not as much weights and running as I would have liked.

“But I still have those two months under my belt and so I’m not too bad going into the Connacht game.”

There is a global consensus in rugby that O’Connell can reach the very top of the tree. He has the physique, he’s as hard as nails, he’s also a natural footballer. So far he has four Irish caps. He made his debut against Wales last year, scored a try and departed after less than a half hour with concussion. He came on as a sub against Italy and France and started again against New Zealand.

Although the back injury may have cost him six caps already this season, he turned just 23 last month, so time is very much on his side. The one fear is that he may be prone to injury and although he smiles broadly at the suggestion, you also fear he is a little concerned on this point.

“I remember in school I was one of those who used to slag off guys who were always injured and call them Mr Glass, but now it’s Mossy Lawler who calls me Mr Glass,” he admits ruefully. “I’ve had a bad run with injury, I don't know why. I injured my back in the Celtic League final and missed a couple of games.

!It faded away and then I had a tight hamstring and had a bit of physio and that cleared so I thought when I came back from New Zealand it would be the same, but in fact it got progressively worse until I had to go under the knife.

“Now I’ll just hope to get a run without getting an injury which would be ideal for that’s how you get your match fitness. If you keep getting injured after two or three matches, your standards won’t be as high as you would like. I’m being given a game on Friday night but staying on the team won’t be easy, Gaillimh (Mick Galwey) and Micko (Mick O’Driscoll), Dunners (Donnacha O’Callaghan), Tom Hayes, Trevor Hogan, they’re all there looking for a place.

“As for the international caps I may have missed, in the first place I don’t know whether I’d have been selected. If you looked at it that way, you’d be really frustrated. Everybody gets injured from time to time.

“I just try to take the positives, I got my exams and I’m into third year at UL. I had a nice, relaxing holiday. Hopefully, too, I’ll be fresher come the new year.”

Everybody in Irish rugby will wish this exciting talent a lot better luck now that he has disposed of his latest setback. Tonight could well be the start of a road he knows will be a long one back given the wealth of second row talent available to the Munster and Irish managements.

“The main thing for now is looking forward to playing again. Just going to Young Munster matches all season and seeing them get off to a great start, going out with the lads afterwards and you’re not in the gear, you’re just a supporter, that’s a bit annoying. It would be great to break into the Munster team on a regular basis.

“As for Ireland, of course I’d love to get back, but you’ve got to perform, get into your provincial team first and hopefully things will happen after that. Try to train hard, stay sharp and injury free, get my match fitness up to a high level where I can impress.

“I need matches and I didn’t get them last year. It’s something I’d love this time to help cement my place. Of course the World Cup is an ambition but it’s too much to focus on for now.”

MUNSTER: K Keane; C McMahon, M Mullins, J Holland, M Lawler; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes; P O’Connell, D O’Callaghan; J Williams, (capt), A Quinlan, A Foley. Replacements: C Mahony, M Prendergast, D Malone, S Kerr, J Blaney, M O’Driscoll, D Leamy or E Halvey.

CONNACHT: M McHugh; G Duffy; D Yapp; S Moore (capt); T Robinson; E Elwood; C Keane; R McCormack; M Uijs; P Bracken; D Browne; R Frost; P Neville; J O’Sullivan; J O’Connor.

Replacements: F Boiroux; J Flannery; M Swift; E Peters; E Reddan; J Norton; W Munn.

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