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Sunday 20 April 2014

Vincent Hogan: Vintage class still has legs

The prejudice of time begins to press down on some of Munster's most decorated officers, yet heads keep turning for a restorative glimpse of one of their most battle-scarred.

Paul O'Connell's name is invoked by media, almost on reflex now, as Rob Penney tries to work the positives from a project that lacks accuracy, but little else. The paradox can't be lost on the New Zealander. Just as Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara come under what has the distinct feel of ageist scrutiny, the tribunals pine for O'Connell's venerable influence.

Penney politely batted away questioning about the fitness of the 2009 Lions captain on Saturday night, articulating patience on the matter that may require repeat readings over the coming weeks.

Munster go to Paris next weekend for an opening Heineken Cup engagement that their opponents, Racing Metro, palpably hope will fill Stade de France. They do so on the back of their eighth defeat to Leinster from the last 10 meetings and, if Penney is new to that predicament, Saturday provided a pocket education on the salty juices flowing between these sides.

For the game came roller-coasting out of a perfect, windless October evening with a sound and urgency not exactly commonplace in Pro12 combat.

O'Callaghan's wonderful take of Jonny Sexton's kick-off prefaced 54 seconds of perfectly stitched, albeit lateral, passing from the Munster men. But then a turnover and, after Brian O'Driscoll's grubber kick forced the concession of a five-metre scrum, Leinster laid waste on the Lansdowne Road end.

They were rewarded with Richardt Strauss' backstroke stretch under the posts but, no sooner had the din abated than Mike Sherry and Simon Zebo were working an opening for Peter O'Mahony to power over in the left corner. Seven minutes in and, already, haymakers safely landed on both chins.

Hallelujah.

Penney wants Munster to embrace a wider, continuity-based game than has been their custom, but it's a tricky strategy against a team possessing so much broken-field menace.

So, for all the gears they ran through on Saturday, there was a perpetual sense of trapeze artists performing without the security of a net. The tiniest equivocation seemed coded into Munster's back play, with only Keith Earls truly running like a man with dynamite caps in his shoes.

O'Gara had an efficient, tidy game at No 10 that lasted an hour and, if Ian Keatley was bright and energetic on his introduction, the efforts to pitch the latter's impact as proof of the former's decline seemed a mite opportunistic, if not downright unfair.

Penney rightly recoiled from the suggestion that he had now activated the 'shepherd's hook' in successive games against O'Gara.

"I wouldn't be using that word," he explained. "It's more the rest period that Ronan's had coming in. He's had limited preparation time with the group, whereas Ian's been here the whole time."

Munster are, essentially, learning new tricks on the run here, endlessly adjusting, calibrating and revising in the midst of fixtures that, suddenly, carry heavy implications.

Ian Madigan cut brilliantly inside Casey Laulala for Leinster's second try and, when O'Driscoll's masterful corner-flag finish allowed them ease 30-14 clear after 53 minutes, Damien Varley's sin-binning seemed likely to preface a collapse.

O'Callaghan had, somewhat surprisingly, been replaced four minutes earlier and -- reduced to a seven-man scrum -- Munster's pack now had the life expectancy of a bleeding swimmer trying to make it from Cuba to Key West.

But they didn't roll over and -- apart from John Cooney's charge up the East-stand touchline, terminated by a treacherous bounce -- Munster actually spent the final quarter asking awkward questions of the European champions.

For their players, it felt like a performance deserving -- at least -- of a bonus point.

James Downey, a 64th-minute replacement for Zebo, explained: "We're not far off. It's a lot of different combinations, a lot of young lads and everyone's got to gel together and get used to it. I think everyone backs the way Rob wants us to play.

"At the start of the game, you saw that when we do push it wide, we can get the gains. All we need is one or two more phases, I think, and we can open teams up, as we've shown before."

A splendid 67th-minute Keatley kick pushed them deep into the Leinster '22' and, from a five-metre scrum, Conor Murray dived through an unguarded door on the short side. Keatley's touchline conversion was sublime and, when Laulala charged over with just six minutes remaining, referee Leighton Hodges was forced to rule a forward pass on site rather than go upstairs because the alleged offence came outside the remit of the TMO.

That late surge came as little surprise to the men in blue.

"Well you'd expect nothing less," suggested second-row Damian Browne. "These games are always a step up, just because of the history and the rivalry in them. There were times in the first half when it was through the roof.

"Then it got a bit stop-start with quite a few penalties and scrums dropping. The last 25-35 minutes of the game was a bit all over the shop. But you have to be happy when you dig in and hold a team out like that, especially when they're within a sniff of a bonus point and maybe more."

Penney bemoaned the absence of pragmatism that probably cost Munster that minimal reward, a kickable late penalty rejected in favour of a line-out. Heading to Paris now with a largely callow team, he knows that calm on-field leadership will be essential.

Hence, those inevitable questions about O'Connell.

"As we keep saying week in, week out, Paulie's going to be ready when he's ready," said Penney. "If we put a timeline on it and he's not ready, all of a sudden he's under immense pressure. 'Why is he not ready?' So we're not putting a timeline on it. As we said last week, he's getting close. He's doing a lot of good work.

"The thing with Paulie obviously is he's got so much to offer. He's still in the prime of his career. He's had such a battering through his young age that he's just taking time to recover from what has been a pretty bruising career to date. And, if we can put the miles in now, hopefully the whole rugby community can enjoy him playing more regularly at each level that he wants to."

Penney acknowledged that O'Connell's presence could have "a great influence on everybody". But you have to suspect his immediate challenge is to work without the Limerick man, yet strike a balance between street-wisdom and hope in Paris. That's why, logically, O'Gara and O'Callaghan will surely start.

The old side of Munster's dressing-room may house its share of war wounds, but it's no wax museum.

Irish Independent

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