The former &Lions captain, who underwent surgery on December 31 to correct a bulging disc in his lower back, took another significant step in his return to full fitness when he completed 80 minutes for Munster in 22-0 RaboDirect Pro12 victory over Connacht at Musgrave Park, Cork.
After making his comeback in the A game against Leinster in Limerick 10 days earlier, followed by an 80-minute outing for Young Munster last weekend, O’Connell, 33, made his first senior start for Munster since the Heineken Cup round two pool win over Edinburgh on October 21 and even scored his first try in almost four years as he burst over the line from short range to open his side’s scoring after just 11 minutes.
More importantly, two and a half games into what he believes are the three matches he needs to feel fully match fit, O’Connell remained on course for Munster’s European showdown at The Stoop on April 7.
The veteran lock was critical of his own contribution given his lack of match sharpness but with a league trip to Glasgow next weekend he looks set for London a week later when the two-time champions will need all the experience they can get if they are to upset English Premiership leaders Harlequins and reach a first Heineken Cup semi-final since 2009.
“I’ll be fine by Harlequins. I know that myself,” O’Connell said. “So there’s no fear, it’s just getting into, I had a few good carries but some of my breakdown stuff I wouldn’t be too happy with. You probably need to take a close look at that, it’s a big part of the game obviously, the team who wins the breakdown generally wins the game so I need to sharpen up there a little bit.
“And back to back efforts is the big thing, being able to do something good and back it up straight away.”
O’Connell’s 80-minute stint in Cork may have been enforced given a 60th-minute injury to flanker Sean Dougall necessitated replacement lock Billy Holland’s deployment as an emergency back-rower but he said getting through a full match against interprovincial opposition represented another important step in the right direction.
“Incredibly important. I think when I saw Billy Holland coming on towards the end I realised I was on for the rest of the game, my heart dropped a little bit,” he joked.
“No, it was great to get through the 80 minutes and you know, I do feel quite dynamic at times. It’s putting it back to back at this stage.
“It’s about being able to be dynamic, get up off the ground, get back and be dynamic again. I probably don’t have that fitness yet. That generally comes to me after three games, so I’ve two and a half under my belt now, so I should be feeling a lot better now.
“I feel great, I feel really good actually. I’ve done a lot of fitness coming up to last week but you just can’t replicate line-out jumping, mauling, scrummaging, and communicating then when you’re tired. You can’t do that in fitness training, it’s only in games you get it, so it’s great to get back and get those games.”
As for the try, his first since the April 2009 Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Ospreys at Thomond Park, there were similarities with his previous score. Back then Tomás O’Leary put O’Connell in for his score and it was another neat pass from a young scrum-half that sent the second row powering over the line on Saturday night.
“I think my last one might have been in ’09…in the corner off Tomás…but I was injured for a big long time! Yeah, a great little pass from Cathal Sheridan, what a game he had. So it’s great to get on the scoresheet.”