Paul O’Connell appears set to step down as Munster captain as the province begins a new era under head coach Rob Penney.
Both the veteran Ireland and Lions lock and the incoming New Zealander dropped broad hints yesterday that the 32-year-old will relinquish the role he has held for six years, during which he led Munster to its second Heineken Cup win in 2008. Former All Black wing Doug Howlett, who will skipper the province for a third time this pre-season when London Irish visit Musgrave Park on Friday night, looks most likely to succeed O’Connell on a permanent basis, with an announcement expected by the end of the week.
O’Connell and Penney were in Glasgow yesterday for the launch of the 2012-13 RaboDirect Pro12, which gets under way for Munster on September 1 at Edinburgh.
Asked about the captaincy, O’Connell replied: “I really enjoyed doing it. I’ve done it for six years now. It’s something I thoroughly enjoyed, probably not as much in the first few years as I did in the last few years, but I think it might be time for a change at Munster. I’ve done it for a long time, Rob is coming in as a new coach and it might be a time for change, but it’s undecided at the moment. We might take another week or so to figure of what we’re going to do, so we’ll see what happens.”
O’Connell, who is working his way back to fullfitness following aserious knee injury he first suffered the Six Nations against France in Paris last March and further damaged against Ulster in May, also hinted that by giving up the captaincy he would be able to focus better on his own game.
“Days like today aren’t the hard thing,” he said of the RaboDirect Pro12 media day at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum.
“When you’re captain, at times you are keeping an eye on everything else and maybe not keeping an eye on yourself as much as you’d like to. I’ve had six years of it now, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I loved doing it but it might be time for change and for someone else to take it on.”
Penney yesterday said there were “a few options” regarding the captaincy situation “but I’m really keen for the whole group to have input into who he will be.” He added: “Every captain or leadership situation needs to be treated on its own merits. Being new into the organisation, I want to make sure we get that component right for the right reasons.
“Paul is a magnificent leader in his own right and a magnificent man and a critical member of Irish and Munster rugby. We haven’t confirmed our captain as yet and that process is ongoing.
“There is a lot of discussion taking place around who will ultimately be the team captain and that should come to fruition by the end of the week.”
Neither player nor coach was prepared to put a timeline on O’Connell’s return to action but with a British and Irish Lions tour to Australia on the horizon next summer, and the lock’s ambition of being selected for a third tour, Penney spoke of his plans to “do the right thing” in easing him back to full fitness.
“He’s going through a conditioning component to his training. He had a nasty knee injury last year and he’s got a big year ahead. We all hope he’s going to be playing 100% for Ireland and makes the Lions tour.
“Part of the responsibility as a coach of people like Paul is that you do the right thing by them.”
O’Connell added: “Right now I’m just trying to get myself as a fit as I can for the start of the season. Running-wise, anyway, I’m trying to get myself as fit as I can, get back playing for Munster and hopefully play for Ireland as well and if Lions selection comes from that, it would be brilliant.”
Meanwhile, last season’s Heineken Cup runners-up Ulster have confirmed that former Springbok lock Johann Muller will continue as captain for a second season.
MUNSTER (v London Irish): D Hurley; D Howlett, (c), C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, D Williams; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Foley, B Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, S Dougall, J Coughlan.
Replacements: M Horan, S Henry, S Archer, P Donnellan, T O’Donnell, P Butler, P Stringer, S Deasy, S Scanlon, L O’Dea.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved