Maybe it was kidology in the build-up to the province’s biggest game of the season to date or a continued reaction to Saturday’s defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, but the veteran lock and former captain said his side would need to improve by a “minimum of 40%” over any previous performance this year just to have a chance of beating the four-time European champions.
The warning issued by O’Connell ahead of Toulouse’s first visit to Limerick was all the more remarkable considering Munster’s proud European home record at Thomond Park, having lost only three times in 19 seasons; to Leicester in a 2006 pool game, to Harlequins in an Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in 2011 and to Ulster 12 months later in a Heineken quarter-final. Yet O’Connell (pictured) yesterday dismissed the bookmakers’ installation of Munster as 8/13 match favourites by pointing to Munster’s patchy form in 2014.
“I am not trying to build us up to be underdogs, to give us a reason to perform,” the Ireland captain said. “I don’t see how you could put the two teams down on paper beside each other and put us as favourites. I don’t see how you put us the way we have been playing over the last few weeks, the last few months, and make us favourites in any way.
“We probably need to go a minimum of 40% above where we have been since Christmas to have a chance of winning.”
Asked if he had seen any indication that required improvement was about to happen on Saturday afternoon, O’Connell replied: “It’s there in training, it’s there in training every week and it’s there in matches in little fits and starts. Just to win these big Heineken Cup games you need 80 minutes of relentless rugby on both sides of the ball.
“Whether you are defending, whether you are attacking, whether you are chasing kicks or whatever you are doing, you need to be relentless and we haven’t been like that for 80 minutes at any stage this year, maybe once or twice.”
It was put to O’Connell that he seemed puzzled about from where such an 80-minute performance might come.
“I suppose I am, yeah,” he replied.
Perhaps it was for the French journalists in attendance at yesterday’s media day in Limerick but O’Connell based his downbeat outlook not just on his assessment of Munster’s poor recent form but also on Toulouse’s pedigree, despite themselves having drawn at Stade Francais and lost away to Toulon in their most recent French Top14 outings.
“They struggle at times,” the lock said, “I think they are somewhat a little like the French team in that they have quality across the park and I just think on the really big days, they are one of, if not the best team in the competition.
“Maybe it is because in Munster and Ireland we have such an affinity with the Heineken Cup and we’re so used to watching Toulouse and their incredible style of rugby. To me they are one of the best teams in the competition and if you look at them on paper, if you look at their budget, if you look at the squad they have it’s an incredible squad of players with an incredible talent, skill, size, footwork.
“I really mean that when I say it’s an uphill task for us at the weekend.”
O’Connell, though, has not given up Saturday’s sell-out as a lost cause, even if last weekend’s league defeat at Leinster was characterised by a lack of attacking penetration.
“We have the quality to do it. We need to show it and play well. You look at some of the guys we have; Tommy O’Donnell is as fast as any back, David Kilcoyne is probably the same. Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Casey Laulala, Felix [Jones], they have incredible feet, great speed, great fitness but if you turn over the ball after one or two phases of the scrum or the lineout these guys don’t get the chance to get the ball in their hand. They don’t get the chance to show what they can do.”