The centre of all the attention after another famous Munster day of glory, O’Connell credited the less experienced members in the squad for standing up in their side’s hour of need to belie recent poor form, including a 51-24 defeat to Glasgow, and conjure a performance to shock Conor O’Shea’s English champions, landing their heaviest blows with four hard-earned penalties converted by Ronan O’Gara in the 16 minutes after half-time.
“I suppose there was a lot of doubt after last week,” O’Connell said.
“We probably threw a bit of a dummy against Glasgow. It wasn’t our intention; we were very low during the week. This was a great, great performance.
“Some of the young guys, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell — it’s hard to pick guys out but I thought they were phenomenal — particularly in that 10, 15-minute period after half-time, they really stood up.
“It’s a great moment. We were completely written off and just to come away from home and win a quarter-final away from home against the odds is a great feeling, a very special feeling.
“I think it’s a very important day for this group of guys. They are listening to people doubting them for a little while and I think it was very important they got a day like this to realise that their hard work is worth it.
“Some of them have worked so hard to get here. Tommy O’Donnell, people think he’s a young guy but he’s not that young, he has worked really, really hard to get here, a bit like Jerry Flannery did. It has taken time to come and I’m just really happy that their hard work has paid off for them.”
As to where that performance, in direct contrast to the travails of recent weeks in the RaboDirect Pro12 where Munster have all but blown their play-off hopes, had come from, O’Connell said: “It’s always been there. It’s just a question of bringing it out. The lads work incredibly hard. I spend a lot of time with these young guys and they work so hard. There are so many performances like that in them, it’s just a question of bringing them out.
“It was a funny game. We never discussed actually playing the way we did play in the end, we just went that way. We had momentum and we had a good feel for what we were doing. I was chatting to Rog all the time and we were getting good information off the sidelines about what to do. The maul worked well for us, our kicking game was outstanding; you can’t win these tight games without a good kicking game and I thought it was very good.”
O’Connell’s performance set the tone for the team, however, as it has done on so many occasions down the years and inevitably put the veteran lock right in the frame for a final Lions tour this summer when Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish party to Australia. Gatland was at The Stoop to see O’Connell’s tour de force but O’Connell said he was still short of match fitness.
“A little bit to go,” he said. “I’m just delighted to be back playing. Another injury-free game… well, hopefully I wake up injury free, but I’m just delighted to be back playing and enjoying days like this.
“We had a few good days in the pool stages, Saracens at home, Racing at home, when you’re on the sideline and they are tough times. So to be back involved in it, is great.”
Clermont is O’Connell’s next target and he said: “It’s going to be very tough for us. You look at them, they are an outstanding side all across the field. You look at their bench: I think any team in Europe would be happy to have their bench on their first XV. It’s going to be very tough but I think these young guys can give anybody a game but it’ll be very tough.”