Munster, Ireland and Lions lock O’Connell has been out of commission since playing for the national side against Scotland in the 2010 Six Nations, kept on the sidelines by a groin infection and subsequent complications.
However if he comes through the weekend’s club game he will go into the Munster squad for the Magners League home game against Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park seven days later.
“If he gets through today fine, he will take part in club rugby at the weekend, Young Munster versus Shannon,” Payne said of O’Connell as the player trained with Munster at the University of Limerick.
“He’s doing really well, we’re delighted with the progress he’s making. He’s been training symptom-free for a couple of weeks.
“It’s a long time since he’s played. We need him to get some limited game time just to bring him up one more step, and if he gets through that game, he’ll come back into contention for us for the following weekend against Cardiff.”
Payne said O’Connell’s return to action was being carefully managed but the player himself was raring to go.
“We’re just stepping it up gradually. He’s been in full-contact training for the last two or three weeks. He’s delighted; you know what Paulie is like — there is nothing worse for him than having to sit on the sidelines and watch.
“It’s been a very frustrating time for him since last year’s Six Nations. He’s busting to get back into it. He’s had no setbacks over the past couple of months.
“We initially thought he’d be back around Christmas time, so this is a good four weeks ahead of schedule.
“We’re taking it step by step, this weekend will be another step, if we progress past that Cardiff will be the next step.”
It will then be on to the Heineken Cup back-to-back group matches against Ospreys in mid-December, and there was further good news for Munster yesterday when scrum-half Tomás O’Leary and centre Lifeimi Mafi were named in the squad to face the Dragons in Magners League action on Friday night at Rodney Parade.
It is the first time either has featured since October 2, when O’Leary fractured a thumb against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium and Mafi was cited and subsequently banned for a dangerous tackle in the same game.
And there were even more reinforcements when Johne Murphy and John Hayes were released from the Ireland squad to join training yesterday, deemed surplus to requirements for Sunday’s Test against Argentina.
With Peter Stringer still on Ireland duty, O’Leary’s return this weekend is particularly welcome following news that Duncan Williams has been ruled out for two to three weeks after sustaining an ankle injury during the first half of Munster’s narrow victory over Scarlets at Musgrave Park on Sunday.
There are still 21 contracted players missing from the set-up, and aside from the Ireland contingent, to which has been added hooker Damien Varley, called up this week by Declan Kidney following injury to Ulster’s Rory Best.
Aside from Williams, Alan Quinlan (hamstring) is also absent in the short-term, Ian Dowling (hip), Felix Jones (knee) and Denis Fogarty (shoulder) are all out until at least the new year while Payne admitted that international hooker Jerry Flannery’s calf injury continued to frustrate and made him a doubt for Heineken Cup action.
“Fla is continuing his recovery. It seems to be a neural-related injury. Ultimately, it’s very frustrating. We are hoping he will be ready in the very near future but because of the nature of it we simply can’t give an answer (on a possible return date).
“It’s one of those injuries that have a mind of its own. It’s definitely a concern in that this injury seems to strike at any time. It’s a concern when guys are getting these injuries and we don’t know exactly what’s wrong.
“Jerry is not happy. He is the type of guy who needs to be playing and making a contribution, and training as hard as he possibly can. That’s the way he is.”
MUNSTER SQUAD (v Dragons): W Du Preez, D Ryan, J Hayes, S Archer, P Borlase, S Henry, M Sherry, B Hayes, I Nagle, B Holland, P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, N Ronan, J Coughlan; T O’Leary, C Murray, P Warwick, S Deasy, S Tuitupou, B Murphy, L Mafi, I Dineen, T Gleeson, D Howlett, J Murphy, D Hurley.