Tony Ward: Munster need O'Connell's leadership more than ever
This afternoon at Thomond Park the Munster season is on the line as they welcome Guinness Premiership high-flyers Northampton Saints.
The Heineken Cup quarter-final path has been trodden so successfully and so consistently by the southern province over the years, but this will be the first home engagement against an English side at this stage. Gloucester, Saracens, Sale and the rest were all in Pool qualifiers.
For many obvious reasons this clash has danger stamped all over it and certainly, if the sound bites coming from Saints forwards Neil Best and Dylan Hartley are to be believed, the Premiership title contenders come not in hope but in expectation of doing what only Leicester have done in Heineken Cup history, that is, turning over the two-time champions on their own Limerick turf.
"We've been to Thomond Park and we know what Munster are about. We know what to expect. No fear," said Hartley. Former Ulster flanker Best has been equally quick out of the blocks when highlighting that "Roger Wilson and I have played there numerous times and we know none of our players will be daunted by going there for a quarter-final."
There is no doubt the January experience will have benefited Northampton enormously and obviously confidence within the visiting group is high. Naturally, Jim Mallinder, Paul Grayson and Dorian West will support their players' pre-match utterings to the full. The proof, of course, will be in the performance and ultimately the result, but even in these ultra-professional times, I'm not too sure that shooting from the lip is the cleverest way to go.
Rest assured the general tenor will not have been lost on a Munster side boasting five wins from the five quarter-finals played at the Limerick venue to date.
By contrast, the Munster build-up has been low-key. Last weekend's defeat to Leinster was chastening. They got what they deserved and they know it. The post-Six Nations winning momentum, so badly needed ahead of Heineken Cup action, has been denied.
Training will have been more tentative since, but that, in itself, is no bad thing, provided individual and collective tension is channelled into intensity.
Jerry Flannery called it half-right when saying: "If you prepare yourself mentally to get into that zone (of intensity) in training it can be easier to get into it on the day of a game. It's difficult to hold your concentration for a long time, which is why we put a lot of emphasis on having all 15 players talking on the field, rather than relying on a Paul O'Connell or Ronan O'Gara to lead all the time."
It is the second part that causes concern. For me, the most frustrating aspect to last week's defeat was the lack of any discernible on-field leadership. The absence of O'Connell was huge. O'Gara played well and, in my view, outmanoeuvred his immediate opposite in their much hyped head-to-head. However, for all his vast experience and invaluable contribution to the Munster cause, he lacks that inherent quality possessed only by O'Connell and Flannery within this squad.
The out-half, for all his outstanding qualities, does not look comfortable in the leadership role. It is not a criticism, just a statement of fact that, apart from O'Connell and potential captain-in-waiting Flannery, there is no other natural-born leader in the side.
By contrast, Leinster possess at least five -- Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip -- comfortable in the role, but more importantly, a very real 'follow me' presence in differing sectors of the team. Rob Kearney is another who has what it takes to develop in this vein.
Even when below par, O'Connell is the one either trying to make it happen or urging others to follow his lead. It is an unfair burden on the player, yet an undeniable fact that Munster with and without their talisman can be two different competitive entities entirely.
Tony McGahan is no doubt working at all times towards the principle, as outlined by Flannery, of shared responsibility, but as of now -- and certainly against Leinster when, minus O'Connell, the chips were down -- it's not showing.
Today is the day when the need demands that others step up to the mark. Not just Flannery and O'Gara, but ultra experienced campaigners like Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, David Wallace and Alan Quinlan.
Behind the pack, too, the mark of leadership does not match the quality. The nature of rugby dictates that invariably it is the forwards leading the way, yet how often over the years have we seen O'Driscoll, whether in Leinster blue, Ireland green or Lions red, sparking the forwards into action by dint of midfield deed.
The demands on the captain are so much less than in times past. Now it is a responsibility shared not just with fellow players, but with backroom staff and coaching management as well. That said, there are times in every game when the tide turns against you and it takes every bit as much moral as physical courage to check the flow and attempt to turn it around. This is when true leadership comes to the fore and it doesn't require an arm band to trigger the initiative to bring it about.
There is a rugby revolution taking place under Mallinder at Franklin's Gardens. Northampton is, like Limerick, a rugby hotbed. When you pick from a squad boasting Test players from eight different countries, you've every right to fancy your chances. I'm still not too sure I'd be shouting it from the rooftops, a la Hartley and Best, though.
Thomond is a very special place on Heineken Cup days. It has yet to beat any opposition on its own, but when the home team gets it right and when leaders stand up, the concoction is pretty irresistible and nigh on unbeatable.
Granted, the English visitors are on fire at the moment and relatively dismissive of this special venue -- but how many times have we read this script before?