Loss of 'inspirational' O'Connell a massive blow for team-mates
THE news of Paul O'Connell's back surgery took the Munster squad by total surprise, with some players not finding out their talismanic second-row will go under the knife until hours after the Ulster game and even yesterday morning.
O'Connell has spent much of the last number of weeks and months away from the squad as cures other than surgery for his ongoing problems were sought.
Whatever the outcome of the operation, and no matter how quickly he rehabs, his absence will continue to leave a huge hole in the Munster dressing-room, as attested by Billy Holland.
"Paulie is the most inspirational person in the squad," said Holland, after another decent shift in the Munster second row against Ulster.
"He's a hugely selfless guy and when he hasn't been playing this year, he's been helping a lot of the younger fellas.
"This is my first year calling line-outs and he's given me a lot of guidance in terms of how to deal with it. He's also helped Donnacha Ryan a lot in terms of the Heineken Cup and he's inspirational."
The mood around the Munster camp following the news has been one of huge disappointment, tempered by the hope that O'Connell will be back to play some part in their season if, as hoped, the surgery is a success.
The operation is being performed with a view to O'Connell playing again this season, although at this stage it is pretty certain he will not feature in any of Ireland's Six Nations games.
O'Connell's influence on Munster cannot be overstated. He possesses this amazing ability to galvanise the team like few other players. He inspires those around him to better themselves even when they believe they have maxed out.
His indomitable spirit and selflessness – as evidenced by the time he spends dealing with younger players – speaks volumes for his commitment to the game and to his team-mates, a commitment that has not been compromised by the passage of time.
It is beyond question that Munster play better with O'Connell in the team, not so much for footballing reasons but because players are emboldened by his very presence.
O'Connell is, in every sense, a father figure to Munster. When they scrum down with him, it is as if he is the drive-shaft of the engine room, transmitting his considerable power and his calm authority while binding the eight into an explosive unit.
He throws a comforting blanket over their backs and encourages them to better themselves. And they rarely let him down.
His critics will suggest that his handling ability has sometimes let him down, but who in the game is better at catching a stray arrow with his finger-tips? And while he isn't the most dynamic of runners, his carries usually tend to be hugely effective.
Munster, with all due respect to those deputising in his absence, are a worse team without O'Connell.
That's why Rob Penney selected him for the Heineken Cup games in Rounds 1 and 2 when he had no game-time in the build-up. It's also why the players will be hoping this surgery will allow him to return before the season's end.
The "we need him" comment from one of Munster's front-line players pretty much sums it up.