Paul O'Connell: You can't make us favourites the way we are playing
O'Connell insists Munster will require '40pc improvement' to beat quality Toulouse side
Published 02/04/2014 | 02:30
As Munster gather to speak to the assembled media, the ERC's Heineken Cup backdrop behind each player and coach is worryingly frayed.
A metaphor, perhaps, for the competition itself, facing extinction in its current format as European clubs finally celebrate their wrestling of the initiative away from the traditional power brokers of the game, the national Unions.
Or, one may venture, for Munster's own chances of success in this competition as they prepare, ever so hesitantly, to face the event's traditional powerhouses Toulouse, the tournament's most successful team.
There is an air of mutinous uncertainty swirling around Limerick as Munster build up to what is the definitive match of their season.
Concerns continue to circle not only about the health of key performers, chiefly their extraordinarily influential captain Peter O'Mahony.
But so, too, around their collective health heading into Saturday's clash, a nervous tension that, as a previous captain freely confesses, suffuses them with none of the surging self-belief that they once embroidered as their own, exclusive trademark in this type of fare.
"I don't think we've played particularly well in a long time," offers Paul O'Connell with brutish simplicity.
"We defended reasonably well in Gloucester and against Leinster at home when we beat them.
"But, other than that, I'd find it hard to pick out any big performances from us in recent months.
"You look at their squad, the quality of players, the size of the men they have, it's an absolutely mammoth task we have."
Losing to Leinster last weekend merely reconfirmed this state of nervous agitation; 12 months on from a heavy defeat to Glasgow, though, there is a precedent for this team to delve into the muscle memory and produce something special from within the vast reserves.
This is a team that has, more often that not, thrived on the limitations burdened upon their shoulders.
Often, their best response, as it was when unfancied in Harlequins last term, is to discover that it is not how well they cope in troubled times, rather how they cope when troubled times knock upon their door.
"Certainly I'd rather be in Leinster's position going in from last week's game than our position," O'Connell cedes.
"They executed plays, they held onto the ball, they kicked well, they defended very well and dominated possession. From our point of view, that was a real disappointing performance."
Those of a suspicious hue will endeavour to locate a familiar frailty in this enduring dialogue that assumes Munster's status as mere pawns to be consumed by the kings of the European stage; the bookies, a more wise collection of fellows, beg to differ.
O'Connell's competitive spirit, however, seeks to stress that he is not implicating himself in a conscious gambit to overly exalt Toulouse, rather to realistically appraise the vivid reality of how fitfully his side have performed this season.
"I am not trying to build us up to be underdogs, to give us a reason to perform. I just don't see how you could put the two teams down on paper beside each other and put us as favourites.
"I don't see how you put us the way we have been playing over the last few weeks, the last few months, and make us favourites in any way. We probably need to go a minimum of 40pc above where we have been since Christmas to have a chance of winning."
At least that much – especially since Rob Penney pointed to an ever-worrying gradient in improvement from Les Toulaisains in recent weeks against Top 14 heavy-hitters, even if they lost to Toulon last weekend, a game analysed at close quarters by backs coach Simon Mannix
"They are a little like the French at times," adds O'Connell. "They have quality across the park and on the really big days, I just think they are one of, if not the best team in the competition."
Munster must prove they can match them. O'Connell feels that his side have inhibited themselves.
"We have the quality to do it," he insists.
"We need to show it and play well. You look at some of the guys we have, Tommy O'Donnell is as fast as any back, David Kilcoyne is probably the same.
"Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Casey Laulala, Felix Jones, they have incredible feet, great speed, great fitness, but if you turn over the ball after one or two phases of the scrum or the lineout, these guys don't get the chance to get the ball in their hand.
"They don't get the chance to show what they can do.
"The only chance we gave them at the weekend was when Leinster kicked the ball to them later on in the game and they were quite dangerous and effective.
"But as forwards we need to provide these guys with a platform to play."
The Heineken Cup backdrop is hanging by a thread now as O'Connell continues to delve deep within for answers.
"It's there in training, it's there in training every week and it's there in matches in little fits and starts. Just to win these big Heineken Cup games you need 80 minutes of relentless rugby both sides of the ball.
"We haven't been like that for 80 minutes for most of the year, maybe once or twice."
Munster, though, are a hardy collection of brains and bones.
Still, O'Connell leaves scratching his head rather than beating his chest.
He seems at a loss to know whether he and his side will unearth what is required.
"I suppose I am, yeah."
Munster have three days to discover themselves.