Tuesday 26 September 2017

O'Connell has faith in Penney blueprint

Paul O'Connell in action against Connacht
Paul O'Connell in action against Connacht
Conor George

Conor George

Paul O'Connell's impeccable record of achievement was manifest in the most meaningful way this week when his team-mates all spoke gushingly about the influence he has been having on the team since his return.

O'Connell's presence engenders an almost serene atmosphere on the Munster camp. Of more importance, though, is the influence he is having on the way Munster are playing.

Coach Rob Penney has maintained throughout the season that he wants his team to be able to play a mixture of the wide game he is championing and the traditional forward-orientated game that has yielded so much success over the years.

It wasn't a coincidence, however, that Munster finally married the two to near perfection for 50 minutes when O'Connell made his return to the starting team against Connacht on Saturday night.

Exaggerated

The 33-year-old former Lions captain laughed off the exaggerated words of praise that have been raining down on him over the last couple of days.

"Ah, it's nice to be well thought of," he said, his cheeks reddening with embarrassment. "We got a good result on the day I came back, but I wouldn't read too much into it.

"From my experience of being one of the young players in a squad when experienced players came back into the side, it always gave the side a lift.

"I remember going to the 2003 World Cup having not played with Keith Wood for a long time and just to have him around the place was great.

"Any player coming back in the middle of the season always gives the team a lift. It's a different voice for them. They've had plenty of players and leaders, but I've come in, I'm a different voice and it freshens things up a bit."

It's true also that O'Connell is fresh himself after his lay-off. The nature of his injury – back surgery – was such that the only rehab he could engage in for the first number of weeks was complete rest to maximise the benefit of his surgery.

As a consequence, he cuts a remarkably vigorous figure. O'Connell admitted he was "blowing" a little after playing the full 80 minutes against Connacht on Saturday night. The stiffness also bled into Sunday morning, but a swim worked wonders.

He now has a voracious hunger for rugby. Ironically, this season could be the first time since the introduction of the semi-final play-offs that Munster don't qualify for the last four.

"It would be very frustrating not to make it this year of all years. I just want to play as many games up to the summer break and see what happens.

"We just have to go over now and get the result against Glasgow on Friday night to give ourselves the opportunity. We have four games left in the Pro12 and we have to get four wins and something else from it.

"If we do that we have a chance, although it is in somebody else's hands in a sense, but that's the best we can do."

The suggestion that Munster's performances this season have vacillated wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous because of the perceived view that the Penney approach and the traditional Munster game have been at loggerheads is dismissed by O'Connell.

He believes it has simply been a case of the players becoming comfortable and confident with the mixture.

Values

"It's never a good plan to move away from what works for you and I don't think that's what Rob's trying to do at all," he said. "There's absolutely no way we can't remain true to our own values, playing a tight hard physical game within the framework, and he's been adamant about that since day one.

"At times we haven't taken that on ourselves as players, but you ask any of the players, they all really enjoy playing this way. And there are opportunities to play it both ways, which I think you saw at the weekend."

It has, however, been hinted that O'Connell has had an influence, that the increased directness of Munster's play on Saturday night came at his insistence. He didn't lend credence to the theory. For him there's a far more logical explanation for the improved display.

"It doesn't matter what game plan you play, if you don't retain the ball you relieve the pressure on the opposition.

"I've been in teams under Tony (McGahan) and Declan (Kidney) in the last few years and when you turn over ball it doesn't matter how you play.

"I think it was more simply a case that we probably weren't playing well at times. If you are running into touch or you are dropping balls you are going to put yourself under pressure.

"At times it was that simple. We weren't playing well and people blamed the game plan for some reason. I don't think that was the case," he added.

It is clear O'Connell is on a mission to make up for lost time. His season has been a washout until this moment. The measure of the challenge facing Munster and O'Connell cannot be underestimated. It is, for example, unlikely they will qualify for the league play-offs.

With a competitor of O'Connell's standing, though, sometimes the challenge is all the invitation needed to buck the odds.

Irish Independent

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