Munster, Ireland and Lions veteran O’Connell is set to return to action on Saturday when his province faces European favourites ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup semi-finals in Montpellier.
It will be his first game since an attempted hack at a loose ball caught Leinster back Kearney on the head, leading to a night in hospital for the Leinster man following the Rabo Pro12 derby at Thomond Park on April 13.
O’Connell was not cited by the match’s independent citing commissioner Eddie Walsh, with Penney saying his player had no case to answer, an action and subsequent statement that outraged the Leinster camp, including head coach Schmidt who criticised the failure to bring the Munster lock to book and added, amongst other things: “When those sort of things happen, you have to look at kids and the global game and it has been damaged when I see that and people see that.”
Penney, speaking yesterday in Cork after Munster trained at Musgrave Park ahead of the trip to southern France, was asked for a reaction to Schmidt’s comments and he duly delivered.
“I haven’t read everything he said. I think there was a mention about people outside of rugby watching that. I’m not sure was it attributed to Joe.
“Look, Paulie has probably done more for the game in Ireland than anybody. For the young kids that are now loving the game, it’s on the back of a lot of what’s he done.
“So I was sort of a wee bit taken aback by just that one reference about it putting people off the game.
“What Paul does around the community and for people in the wider community, people in hospital and young people with illnesses and so forth is incredible. It’s just unheralded really.
“Otherwise I can understand completely what Joe is saying about wanting to protect his player and make sure that his player is dealt with in the right way.”
Penney went further, suggesting his fellow New Zealander’s comment might have an extra element to them.
“And, you now, hopefully they (Leinster) feel under a bit of heat now because Munster is on the rise and he’s trying to put some ammunition back this way to put pressure on alternative areas outside of the game itself.
“There might be a bit of gamesmanship too, intertwined with some real concern and thoughtfulness around his player and his need to support him which I can understand.”
O’Connell, though, rowed back considerably on his initial post-match comments, in which he spoke only of his relief at not being cited.
Yesterday he revisited the Kearney incident, saying: “All I can say is it was 100% an accident and I never thought for an instant I was going to make a connection with David’s head.
“I was hoping to poke the ball through, or kick the ball through and get a turnover for the team but having said that, my comments last week, I’d regret them.
“They didn’t help the situation and probably gave the impression I was a bit, I don’t know, indifferent to David’s injury.
“That wasn’t the case at all. I had spoken to him after the game and during the week and was in contact with him in various other ways but I certainly didn’t help the situation last week.
“It’s certainly not ideal that David’s out, missed last week’s game, and I just hope he’s back playing soon. But it was a frustrating few weeks and just disappointed it happened.”
Penney also suggested the ongoing storm in the French media over the failure to cite O’Connell was all being fuelled by another Kiwi, Clermont’s head coach and Schmidt’s former boss Vern Cotter.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Penney said, “Vern’s no fool.
“Where’s it come from? Look, it’s Ireland versus France. People will use any ammunition they can to try to inflict distractions before a game. You guys know that better than me. This will be a bit of that.”