Laying down a marker
Leinster have beaten Munster in their last five meetings, but Paul O'Connell wants to prove that reports of his province's demise are greatly exaggerated
Published 31/03/2011 | 05:00
In years to come, it could well be logged as a seminal moment in the history of Munster rugby.
Saturday, January 22, 2011, Thomond Park, 12 minutes left on the clock and Ryan Lamb has just converted Sailosi Tagicakibau's try to push London Irish into a 14-7 lead.
The Exiles are on fire, smelling the glory that goes with becoming only the second team after Leicester in 2007 to win a Heineken Cup match in that famed Limerick stadium.
Munster are in free-fall.
The week has been dominated by post-Toulon fall-out, peppered with disturbing, unfamiliar words like 'crisis', 'revolution' and 'panic' as Irish rugby tried to get its head around Munster not making the last eight of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 years.
Paul O'Connell stood tall as the players gathered behind the posts. Between injury and suspension, Munster's second-row and captain was featuring in only his fourth match of the season, but the gravity of the situation was not lost on him.
That ignominy of another defeat, the silent despair of the Thomond crowd, the ebullience of their opponents and the trials of a tough week forced Munster to a dark place behind those posts and a communal conclusion -- enough is enough.
When the Munster forwards jogged back to half-way for the restart, there was a different air about them. The bitterness, frustration and anger (absent in Toulon and the equally damaging defeat away to the Ospreys) was back and London Irish bore the brunt.
O'Connell and his men scorched to a bonus-point victory with irresistible intensity and tempo, roared on by a crowd relieved to have tangible evidence that there was still heat in Munster's fire. That victory set the tone for an impressive run of Magners League performances that made light of the absence of a clutch of top players on Six Nations duty and left Munster with a 12-point lead at the top of the table.
It has been a pretty impressive recovery and yesterday in Limerick, O'Connell stressed the importance of that London Irish result as he geared up for Saturday's showdown with Leinster -- the next significant stage of the healing process.
"We were out of the competition, but we came away from that game with a very good feeling and it's moved on," he said.
"We've played very well since then and captured a bit of form. I thought the London Irish game was a better performance than people thought, particularly the last 20 minutes.
"We had put a lot of pressure on them and finished well with some good, high-tempo, high-intensity rugby. The crowd were really involved as well. We've played very well since then and captured a bit of form. There have been poor performances, Treviso was a poor one, but we're moving in the right direction," added the Munster captain.
Coach Tony McGahan also referenced the significance of that bounce-back display against London Irish.
"We got a strong response against London Irish," said the Australian. "To get a bonus-point victory the week after that (Toulon) ... that was a very difficult week, to know you're out of the Heineken Cup for the first time for 13 years and (to see) how the players responded, especially in the back half of that game, certainly was pleasing."
If frustration was a driving force in January, it will be equally relevant in April as McGahan's men strive to end a run of five defeats against a Leinster side whose stunning Heineken Cup progress highlighted Munster's failure and who are seeking to reel in their southern rivals in the league.
"It will be very disappointing if we don't beat them," acknowledged O'Connell. "Six times in a row would be tough for everyone to take, supporters, staff and players. We'll be going out and giving it everything on Saturday. Since the Toulon game we've improved, we're a lot happier with how we're playing and what we're doing.
"It's just another game, that's the way we're trying to keep our preparation: trying to keep it to another game, and come the day, there will be plenty of spice," he added.
"We know these guys very well, we play with them for Ireland and we've played with some of them at underage and we've known them for years, it will be a tough game, as it always is."
O'Connell's presence is a key ingredient in Munster's defiance, just as it was when Ireland rounded off a hit-and-miss Six Nations in spectacular style against England a couple of weeks ago, and, after coming through the most challenging period of his career, the 31-year-old is hitting battle-speed again.
"I'm getting there. I'm just happy to get a run of games. I had periods where I didn't know when I was going to play again, I didn't know how long it was going to be. The Cardiff game on Saturday was my first time playing three games in a row since Perpignan (December 2009)," said O'Connell.
"It's not so much match fitness, I'd be fairly close now, but your sharpness. I want to play as many games as I can now and just enjoy playing the games."
A high octane derby showdown with Leinster is exactly the type of game to get the juices flowing, but O'Connell admits his 'enjoyment' will hinge on the result. "If it's six-in-a-row, it will be very tough to stomach," he said.
Munster have reacted to their Toulon disappointment with commendable surety and, while the mission on Saturday is more tribal in nature, the motivational message echoes the one that fired O'Connell and his men against the Exiles -- enough is enough.