O'Connell primed for comeback
Unusually for Munster, it's not prime time on this European rugby weekend. But it could just be the right time for Paul O'Connell.
This may be a competition of secondary importance, but the team announcement from Munster coach Tony McGahan yesterday morning has suddenly catapulted the Challenge Cup into the sphere of every Irish sports enthusiast.
The tentative nature of O'Connell's latest return from injury has been re-routed to supreme confidence after he was named on the bench for today's lunch-time semi-final with Harlequins.
And, given the fact that Munster appear more than adequately equipped to deal with a mid-ranking side hailing from an average league, there is a good chance that O'Connell will see some action in the second half.
Presumably, there has been intensive contact from IRFU central command and Munster medics with regard to O'Connell's recuperation; without the IRFU's sanction, it would be unlikely that the talismanic second-row would be appearing on today's teamsheet.
Almost a month since damaging his ankle against Leinster, O'Connell is certain to receive the lusty acclaim of his home faithful as he makes a second reappearance from injury in just five months.
For Munster, too, rehabilitation continues anew in Europe's second-tier competition, assuredly glammed up by the ERC's decision to allow three teams to drop down from the Heineken Cup.
One only has to cast an eye at soccer's equivalent -- two semi-final ties already decided and a secondary competition with interest residing only within the Iberian peninsula -- to see just how tantalisingly competitive this weekend's rugby fare really is.
Munster will continue to boldly declare their ambitions to reinstitute the running game that faltered so badly towards the end of last season; it has retained mixed results 12 months further on, as their continued barren return against Leinster may indicate.
But against Brive, and in recent Magners League outings, there has been a demonstrative commitment to play a more expansive game, one suited to McGahan's coaching skill and relevant to the development of the sport in the last 24 months.
Notwithstanding this, it makes one question just why they have allowed their most skilful utility back, Paul Warwick, to depart with seemingly little effort expended upon his retention. Also, the decision of Sam Tuitupou, who knows a thing or two about expansive rugby, to quietly jump ship has never been adequately explained to the supporters.
Warwick today plays in the midfield, once more highlighting just how insignificant the contribution of Johne Murphy has been in that area. Felix Jones, a stellar contributor in recent times, will hope to maintain his form.
Quite clearly, the back-three of the former Seapoint man, Doug Howlett and Keith Earls is the most potent attacking unit collected at the club; had they a functioning, consistently creative midfield, Munster would already be a worthy ante-post bet for Heineken Cup 2012.
Jones' form has realistically propelled him into Declan Kidney's World Cup thoughts. "Of course it's in the back of the head," admits the full-back, who has already come back from two serious injuries. "It's in the back of every professional player's head. But that's exactly where it is in my case anyway. It's great to be where I am today. Where that is, is playing for Munster. I couldn't be happier.
"I'm here now playing in a back-three with Doug Howlett, legend. With Keith Earls, probably the best winger in the world at the minute. Then there's Ronan O'Gara! Aah man!"
McGahan yesterday confirmed his thinking on O'Connell's suitability to don the playing uniform today.
"We thought it prudent to omit Paul from the original squad until we saw how he came through what was only his second serious workout on Thursday since sustaining the injury," said the Australian.
"He reported no ill-effects, so we're delighted to be able to name him in the squad. I think the Munster medical and fitness staff deserve huge credit for having him back in the match-day squad at this stage.
"But it also demonstrates Paul's professionalism, dedication to his sport and commitment to Munster."
His side should be able to secure victory before calling upon him; Harlequins are decent in the executive positions from eight to 10, but Munster should have more throughout the field to cope comfortably with the challenge from Conor O'Shea's side.
Munster -- F Jones; D Howlett, L Mafi, P Warwick, K Earls; R O'Gara (capt), C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, D Leamy, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, M Horan, J Hayes, P O'Connell, D Ryan, P Stringer, S Tuitupou, J Murphy.
Harlequins -- M Brown; G Camacho, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter. Reps: M Cairns, C Jones, M Lambert, T Vallejos, W Skinner, D Moore, R Clegg, R Chisholm.
REF -- R Poite (France).
Munster v Harlequins,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.0