Revived O'Connell in bullish mood as Munster aim to live up to their own high standards
Published 07/04/2010 | 05:00
Such is Paul O'Connell's exalted status in the global game, it seems that teams can apparently be undermined whether with or without his presence.
With: Against Scotland in Ireland's miserable Triple Crown challenge, the charge from former gilded members of the international fraternity was that O'Connell assumed too much responsibility and his performance suffered as a result.
He was overly fatigued by the mental and physical travails of non-stop rugby, we were told, and presented himself too often for crash ball and attacked his targets with a lot less intensity than usual.
After the often unbearable mental pressures wrought by assuming the Lions captaincy, so soon after Ireland's Grand Slam triumph, not to mention his captaincy of the Magners League-winning squad, O'Connell's often caricatured super-human powers were now facing inevitable diminution.
Without: As Munster succumbed to a chastening home defeat to Leinster last weekend, we were suddenly demanded to accept that the opposite had now become the case. Munster missed their captain's dynamism, his decision-making and overall leadership.
From dispensable to indispensable within a month? Little wonder he threatened to scoff at the underlying motive behind the question.
His coach, however, offered the slightest tacit support for the theory that fatigue has been a potential factor in O'Connell's dip below illustrious standards, as the defining stages of this provincial season accelerate into view.
"It's a very difficult year to come back in," Tony McGahan acknowledged of this post-Lions captaincy season. "Until you've actually been there, the length of the season and to come back into pre-season and play again does take a lot out of you both mentally and physically.
"Guys have set a number of goals for themselves, they've reached them -- both Ireland and Munster had good seasons last year and to back them up, I think every player is in that boat. There's not too many who are setting the world alight.
"I think every time he takes to the field it doesn't have to be crashing runs and crashing tackles, there are so many other components that make up a full performance.
"It might be communication, it might be work off the ball, it might be your line-out calling or your defensive line-out. It doesn't need to be stand-out moments that catch the eye, it's all-encompassing play and in that regard I think he's been very good."
O'Connell himself summarily dis-regarded the thesis out of hand.
"No, not really," he said. "Last year was a great year, the Grand Slam, obviously we were not successful on the Lions tour but a good Lions tour nonetheless. But we're still in both competitions with Munster -- we're second in the Magners League and we have a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup.
"I suppose it goes to show expectations change, people are unhappy with that and the things we've done.
"Obviously, we were disappointed to finish off the Six Nations the way we did. We probably didn't reach the highs but in the first 20 minutes we played the best rugby we had in a long while. We just didn't finish it out.
"I feel good. It's been a very strange season because I don't think I've played more than three games in a row, normally it's been two games in a row because we're being rested quite a bit because of the IRFU.
"It will be just nice to get a run of games under the belt. That's the thing. But I think relative to any other country's teams, the Irish should be the freshest coming into this part of the season and I certainly feel that way."
And what of the theory that Munster without O'Connell are rudderless and lacking the tactical nous that slots so many Thomond Park visitors into a strait-jacket? Again, he is dismissive.
"I don't think so. The one thing we have is an excellent squad. We saw that last year when the way we performed in the Magners League, that was a reflection of our squad the way we performed.
"A big thing in our team is leadership spread throughout it and we've a very strong squad. It's perhaps dissimilar to past years, or when I came in first, in that I don't think any one player is so important to the team as might have been before."
McGahan echoed these sentiments, confirming that reputation demands expectation. "It's unfair to say that we can't play without him but I think generally Paul has earned his right as a great player and a great captain with performances, and any side that he's in is always going to be poorer for him not being a part of it -- whether that is the Lions, the Irish national side or Munster.
"He's built that reputation, that's what great players do, they lift the other players around them to play to a level that maybe they can't get to.
"We have a number of players like that -- Ronan O'Gara is like that, Alan Quinlan is a leader on the pitch. We have a number of players who fit that mould.
"But with Paul, there's no doubt, we're a better team when he's out there on the pitch but do we have the other players to pick it up? Absolutely, and they're the players I've just mentioned.
"It's a fair point but as I said any side with the calibre of a player like that -- Dan Carter for New Zealand, Matt Giteau for Australia, John Smit for South Africa, they're all leaders and great players so any side, whatever the sport, is going to be lesser for that."
O'Connell does admit that the best has yet to come this season. "It's been a good season," he says stridently, "and it could still be a great season."