'Unique' O'Connell set for Munster return to action
Paul O'Connell looks set to start his first competitive match for Munster since October on Saturday as the former Lions skipper steps up his recovery from injury to bid for a seat on the plane to Australia.
O'Connell followed up his appearance last week for Munster 'A' with a game for his club, Young Munster, last weekend and is set to play his first Pro12 match of the season against Connacht.
But while coach Rob Penney prepares to welcome back the inspirational lock, it looks like he will have to plan for most of the remainder of the season without Keith Earls, who has been ruled out for six to eight weeks with a dislocated shoulder.
Penney said that losing players and getting others back from injury were part and parcel of the game and noted that Simon Zebo could yet make a bid to be fit for the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins on April 7.
The Munster coach said the return of O'Connell, who underwent surgery on a back injury on New Year's Eve, is a huge boost to the squad and that the 33-year-old was leading from the front in training.
"He is pretty unique in world rugby in a lot of regards and having some of his 'mana' – a word we use in New Zealand which means ultimately respect and presence in the group.
"It is a Maori word that is all-encompassing when someone holds a presence. When they have 'mana' they have real presence and respect, they ooze it; they don't just have it, and he is one of those people. There are very few of them in the world," said Penney.
O'Connell's ability to recover ahead of time seems to rub off on others and Simon Zebo, who broke a bone in his foot against England, made a welcome return to the training pitch yesterday.
However, he did only light work during the session at Cork IT and Penney reckons it will be very tight for him to be available for the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
"Simon is making progress. We have got some specialist visits to have and all sorts, so we're optimistic without being overly optimistic. We'll just have to wait and see."
Meanwhile, Munster yesterday confirmed that Peter Stringer would remain at Bath until the end of the season.
The 35-year old, whose Munster contract expires at the end of the season, went to Bath on loan in January.