On a day when Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton and O’Connell’s Munster team-mate Paul Warwick edged closer to joining French giants Stade Francais, Munster management were pre-occupied with the immediate availability of their captain.
Both they and O’Connell are understood to be hugely disappointed by the suspension that followed an ERC disciplinary hearing in Dublin into the incident that led to his sending off against Ospreys last Sunday.
Nine minutes after coming on as a replacement at Thomond Park for his first Heineken Cup match since last January, a fit-again O’Connell was sent back to the dugout after he threw an arm out and struck Ospreys No.8 Jonathan Thomas in the head.
That earned the Munster, Ireland and Lions lock a red card from French referee Christophe Berdos and Munster will not appeal that sanction, rather it is likely they will contest the severity of the ban.
While O’Connell will have to sit out tomorrow’s Heineken Cup rematch with Ospreys in Swansea as well as three Magners League games over Christmas and the New Year, he will be free in time to return to European action for the final two rounds of group play.
Munster play Toulon on the weekend of January 15 and then host London Irish at Thomond Park the following week.
Yet team management are concerned at the lack of game time O’Connell has enjoyed since returning from injury after more than eight months out with a groin problem.
One half of All Ireland League action for Young Munster against Shannon and a substitute’s appearance for 25 minutes against Cardiff Blues were the size of O’Connell’s contributions since returning this month and before last Sunday’s shortlived European comeback.
A further four weeks on the sidelines would therefore mean a reverse in terms of match fitness, with an inevitable impact on his game-time against Toulon.
It could have been worse. Following the independent ERC disciplinary committee hearing, at which O’Connell was accompanied by his solicitor Mr Donal Spring and Munster team manager Shaun Payne, the player was initially handed a five-week ban which would have ruled him out of the Toulon game altogether.
After hearing submissions from both parties and considering the evidence, the independent Judicial Officer Jeff Blackett, from England, upheld the red card and determined that the act had been deliberate but that there had been no intention to injure Mr Thomas.
That resulted in a ruling that the offence was in the mid range for which the entry point of sanctions is five weeks. Having taken into account mitigating factors, including O’Connell’s good disciplinary record, Blackett reduced the suspension by one week, leaving him free to play from January 10.
Munster must lodge an appeal within 72 hours of receiving the full written decision of the independent Judicial Officer.
Another 48 hours on from that point and O’Connell’s Ireland team-mate Sexton could be heading to France to conduct preliminary talks with Stade Francais with regards to a move from Leinster.
Ireland’s first-choice fly-half, out of contract at the end of the season, has been linked to a reunion with former provincial coach Michael Cheika, who left Dublin 4 for the Parisian club in the summer. A source close to Sexton indicated last night that the 25-year-old may meet Stade Francais officials next week to hear what the French club, currently lying ninth in the Top 14 league table, have to offer.
Versatile Munster back Warwick, meanwhile, appears already sold on a move, apparently attracted by a lengthier deal in France than the one-year contract being offered by the Irish province.