With Leinster, for so long the junior partner in Irish professional rugby, now having reached a second Heineken Cup final in three seasons, O’Connell has called on his team to rebound from the bitter disappointment of their Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final defeat last weekend. That process starts in tomorrow night’s Magners League clash with Connacht at Thomond Park (7.05pm).
The 20-12 loss to Harlequins in Limerick has sent shockwaves through the province with management, players and fans at a loss to explain what went wrong during a disastrous 80 minutes at Thomond last Saturday.
Yet rather than join calls from some quarters for drastic surgery in terms of the age profile of the Munster squad, O’Connell believes it is just a question of rediscovering lost form, and preferably in time to progress to and win the Magners League grand final later this month.
“I think we have a good strong squad and we are just not performing,” O’Connell said. “You can get into the ins and outs of the age profile of the squad, but I think we still have excellent players who can still produce the goods.
“At the same time I think our Magners League form has been excellent. We have been really dogged in the Magners League and have played some good rugby. We have been good defensively and good in attack, but we just haven’t produced it on the big occasions and that is very frustrating for us and very frustrating for the supporters as well.
“It is probably magnified as well by how well Leinster are playing. They have a very young strong squad and it is tough for our supporters and us watching them being so successful.
“They are playing a really good brand of rugby and they are the team that we have to aspire to, they are playing at the standard we have to aspire to.”
O’Connell now sees Munster’s Magners League campaign as a chance to start making amends.
Named yesterday by head coach Tony McGahan in a 31-man squad for the Connacht game that also included returns for Alan Quinlan and Tomás O’Leary, O’Connell said: “I think we need a big performance to put us back on track. The Magners League becomes our main focus now and even more than that our next game is our next focus.
“Tony spoke this morning about restoring our reputation a little bit after that performance (against Quins) and hopefully we get this shot against Connacht and another shot in the semi-finals and we’ll see what happens there.”
O’Connell said he understood the frustration of Munster fans and did not believe their expectations for the province were too high.
“I don’t think expectations are out of sync with reality. If supporters are disappointed, they have every right to be. We have an excellent squad and I think we have an excellent coaching staff as well. I think that we just haven’t produced the goods and I think people that are disappointed and frustrated with us have every right to be.”
Munster’s loyal followers were also assured that a recovery was within their team’s capabilities.
“I think it is there, we just have to find a big performance in the next few weeks. I think we have struggled in the last few semi-finals we have played in and we really need to produce a big performance now and get back on track.
“That’s where our strength was, when it came to knockout rugby we always upped another gear and I suppose recently we stepped back another gear and hopefully in the next few weeks we can change that.
“We are determined to turn it around.”
Aside from O’Connell’s ankle, scrum-half O’Leary has recovered from the back spasm that delayed his expected return a fortnight ago while Quinlan, who retires at the end of the season, was last in action off the bench against Scarlets on April 16.
MUNSTER squad (v Connacht): F Jones, D Barnes, K Earls, S Zebo, L Mafi, D Howlett, P Warwick, J Murphy, S Tuitupou, P Stringer, C Murray, T O’Leary, R O’Gara, M Horan, W du Preez, S Archer, J Hayes, T Buckley, D Varley, M Sherry, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, D Ryan, P O’Connell, I Nagle, T O’Donnell, D Wallace, J Coughlan, A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Leamy.