O’Connell eager for return to centre stage
FOR Munster to head into European competition without their captain and totem Paul O'Connell is more than a little disconcerting ... shades of Hamlet without the Prince.
The Heineken Cup is Munster's stage and O'Connell has been a key cast member since his debut off the bench against Harlequins in October 2001. After playing a central role in Munster's triumph in 2006, O'Connell was the leading man when he lifted their second trophy in 2008 and his absence from the opening rounds of this year's competition creates a considerable void.
The likes of Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan have proved their effectiveness as understudies but O'Connell's return from the groin problem that has ruined his year cannot come soon enough for player, province or national coach Declan Kidney. Thus, it was especially encouraging to hear O'Connell speak in such positive terms about his rehabilitation at the Dublin section of the Heineken Cup launch in the wonderfully appointed Grand Canal Theatre yesterday.
He has regained six of the 10 kilos he lost battling the injury and hopes to be back training fully "in the next few weeks".
"It's improving well," said O'Connell. "But once I get back on the (training) field it might be another six weeks. Hopefully, I'll be back before Christmas. I'm doing bits and pieces ... a bit of swimming, a bit of bike, a lot of rehab, a small bit of weights.
"I had an infection on my pubic bone. At the start we didn't think there was an infection but after about six weeks that became clear. Unfortunately, by then the infection had taken root quite strongly, so I had to go on IV antibiotics to get rid of that.
"That took quite a long time, and it took a lot out of me as well. I lost a bit of weight. It took about six weeks to get rid of it and then essentially you are left with a bone which is probably very weak.
"That takes about 12 weeks to re-heal -- which was up about a week ago. So that's where I'm at. A few times we thought we knew what it was, but probably didn't exactly; even when we realised it was an infection, the antibiotics didn't get rid of it at the start. So I think it was the third bout of antibiotics I tried got rid of it. It's been a struggle, but since we figured out exactly what it was, I actually started feeling that this is working."
One of the things that has kept O'Connell going throughout the frustrating rehabilitation process was his son Paddy, now five and a half months old. "It's been good fun," smiled O'Connell. "If I hadn't had the injury I would have been away for the first four weeks on tour at the start, so it was great to be around for that. He's piling it on (weight). I wish I could get a bit of his metabolism."
Munster travel to take on high-flying London Irish without O'Connell this weekend, smarting from last Saturday's 13-9 defeat to Leinster, their first in what has been an assured start to the season.
Coach Tony McGahan is optimistic there will be no lingering injury worries from the Leinster game and has identified definite areas for improvement as they seek to take down a side noted for its attacking capabilities.
"There are bumps and bruises but I imagine the biggest thing that is hurt is their pride," said the Australian.
"It's a great challenge for us after last weekend. Getting a strong platform for our kicking game is probably the biggest thing and I think a stronger work-rate as regards to our attack, which had been quite solid heading into last weekend's game. They are two areas where we need to make sure we are going forward. London Irish will expose us if we're not."
Like Munster, Leinster are also missing their second-row figurehead but, after his shoulder surgery, Leo Cullen is also optimistic about his progress having resumed light contact training last week.
Leinster are due to make a decision on his availability for Saturday's opener against Racing Metro on Thursday -- Shane Jennings has been cleared to play -- but irrespective of whether or not Cullen returns, he has healthy respect for their French visitors -- even though it was confirmed yesterday that they will be without marquee names Juan Martin Hernandez and Benjamin Fall.
"It's very sobering when you look through the list of names they have," said Cullen. "It's a massive challenge. Last year we came with a big win over Munster and got beaten by London Irish at home the following week, so it's pretty important to remember from the lessons of history."
Ulster have the most straightforward assignment, at home to Italian newcomers Aironi, and, with full-back Bryn Cunningham retiring through injury yesterday, they have lost their last playing link with the 1999 Heineken Cup-winning side. Having not made it out of their pool since that season, coach Brian McLaughlin is determined to use their strong start to the season as a launch-pad in Europe.
"For us to be coming in unbeaten, with one draw, it's very exciting for us and it's a great place to be," said McLaughlin, who highlighted the 'Ruan factor' following Ruan Pienaar's decisive contribution on his debut against Glasgow last weekend, when the South African scored all the points in Ulster's narrow win.
A day of positives then, with ERC chief Derek McGrath echoing the tone when he announced new deals with the competition's media sponsors and ticket sales for May's Cardiff final that surpassed the levels reached by this stage in 2008, the last time the decider was held in the Millennium.
The one sour note was McGrath's warnings regarding the repercussions from Minister Eamon Ryan's determination to push through a free-to-air proposal for European club rugby's flagship competition.
"ERC is very concerned that the Minister for Communications plans to list the Heineken Cup," said McGrath. "We believe that we have respected the interests of all stakeholders and we are seeking that the proposal be overturned."
McGrath's words were justifiably ominous, for when you have a production as successful and as beneficial to Irish rugby as the Heineken Cup, the last thing you need is hecklers like Ryan ruining the show.