O'Connell driving the Reds revival
Published 16/12/2011 | 05:00
There is no place for reverence on the rugby field.
When Scarlets' lock Damian Welch emerges from the Thomond Park tunnel for the first time this Sunday, he will line up against one of his self-confessed rugby heroes. His deference to Paul O'Connell, however, will cease at the first peep of Dave Pearson's whistle. He must play the man, not the legend.
"Being a second-row, he has been a hero of mine for some time," gushes the 27-year-old belated breakthrough player. "Rugby personalities don't come much bigger to play against than that.
"I have been looking forward to playing against him for a long time. He is a hard player, technically very good. So we need to close down the opportunities for him to show that.
"Last week, we let him get on the front foot too many times. He carried a lot, so we need to stop that at source and perhaps take the line-out away from them a bit more than we did.
"We were a bit more passive than we would have liked. We need to have the mentality to stop their drive and stop their possession from up top as well.
"You can never underestimate what a big impact pinching a few line-outs can have on a side. It is an area where we need to step up our game."
While Welch will strive to park his veneration, in stark contrast that process hasn't always been as easy for Munster in this past year of transition. O'Connell has seen the struggle from both sides of the touchline.
The Munster captain's re-emergence as a major force over the last four months has offered a welcome respite to the horrific run of 18 months when injury and suspension blighted his career. This time last year, he was forced to sit out the away trip to Wales that ultimately cost Munster a knock-out berth in Heineken Cup rugby for the first time in 13 years.
Twelve months on, the pool stages portray a happier picture for Munster, affording O'Connell the opportunity to reflect upon his side's well-chronicled difficulties. Arguably, there was too much reverence as the new attempted to blend with the old. As fledglings attempted to supplant legends. O'Connell tacitly endorses the point.
"Getting over guys leaving was difficult for us," he admits. "Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy were big losses to us, John Hayes was beginning to move aside, Alan Quinlan was retiring.
"It's only when guys step aside you realise how important they were. Now the guys who have come in have had another year at it, have stepped up and played really well.
"They've had another year training with the senior team and when they came into the side they have excelled, they haven't looked to just tread water.
"Sometimes they have been the stand- out players on the pitch. That has been happening for the last few months with the young guys and it has made a big difference to the senior guys."
O'Connell contrasts this significant period of transition of the red guard to his own emergence in the side a decade ago when, although the legends were just as plentiful -- and probably worthy of more deference -- the turnover of players wasn't as numerous.
"It was very different for me," he explains. "It was a lot easier. There were a lot less fixtures back then and when I got my break it was in a pack with seven internationals. It was very easy for me.
"Now, very often when these guys get a break it is in a Pro12 game when a lot of internationals are likely to be away and there's a lot of inexperienced players in the team at one time.
"For me it was much easier. I wouldn't like to be a young guy trying to make the breakthrough now -- it's a tough ask."
Still, he doesn't necessarily believe his captaincy should necessarily be devoted to babysitting the new swathe of Munster players -- even if some of them aren't exactly kids.
In these parts, you have to grab the jersey. Nobody helps you put it on.
"You have to look out for them," he says. "But the guys who are successful are generally the guys who can look out for themselves. It's not easy coming into a team if you've been playing AIL or B and I Cup for a few years.
"It's always going to be a step up to the League or the Heineken, but the guys who can handle themselves without having to rely on anyone else are generally the guys that are successful.
"The guys that grab that jersey. Those who go onto the pitch and rate themselves. You've seen it in Leinster for the last few seasons. You've seen it now with Munster in the last six or seven months. From the Mike Sherrys after last Christmas, through Conor Murray, Danny Barnes, Peter O'Mahony and even Luke O'Dea, to a certain extent, there recently.
"The young guys that come through and have the belief and the confidence are the guys that are successful."
A mercifully injury-free run backbones O'Connell's enduring excellence this season. But one senses it will no longer cow his team-mates, but inspire them. "It's nice to be consistently playing games without an injury to get match fitness up," he agrees. "I really enjoyed the game last week. But next day it might be someone else's day to carry the ball. That's the way it goes."
Munster are realising that transition is not just physical. It's also a state of mind.