Paul O'Connell: Toulon loss made worse by poor play
Time running out for 'bitterly disappointed' Munster legend to add to Euro collection
As Paul O'Connell trooped disconsolately down the tunnel of the Marseille Velodrome last month, he did so empty-handed and empty-headed.
He carried no luggage and, it also seemed, he was incapable of relaying any meaning to us as to why his Munster side had imploded against Toulon, rendering so relatively comfortable the defending champions' passage to another final.
He was too disappointed to speak, we were told – "Ah, that was just Fiona the press girl being nice!" he smiles now. The smile may have returned; the disappointment still sears deeply. At 34, he doesn't know how many more chances there might be to dine at Europe's top table.
"I was bitterly disappointed because I know I won't get many more chances," he concedes at Old Belvedere's Anglesea Road ground, where he dimly remembers picking up a Freshers' crown with UCC some time in the last century.
Just another reminder of how Father Time is slowly and determinedly ripping the pages from his ever dwindling professional life story.
"You don't mind sometimes when you play great stuff and get beaten," he continues. "But to go out and just not perform was really disappointing. I know we dug in and got back into the game and all that – and even though we were playing badly, we were trying our hearts out.
"But you do need to play well when you're playing a quality team like that away from home. You need things to work, similar to what we did when we went over to beat France and win the Six Nations.
"I'm sure plenty of the lads will be saying that they'll have a few more shots at this, which is a thing you say after you've played badly perhaps. It's just that I don't know how many opportunities I'll have to play in another Heineken Cup semi-final.
"Particularly when you have that chance to win it with the long-range penalty... to have nearly won a game playing badly is a deep disappointment."
O'Connell's personal fears about being able to emulate successive semi-final appearances is shared by many of his ilk who pour their souls into Munster rugby.
In a week when Munster's Beal Bocht has gawped wider than ever, as Connacht land an All Black to compound the embarrassment of bidding some €40,000 a year more than their southern counterparts for the highly rated centre Bundee Aki, those concerns are more pressing than ever.
"It is a hard time to attract players anyway with the World Cup next season," says O'Connell, who is eager not to be drawn into another vacuous internecine rugby row.
"That is one thing for sure. Certainly we are restricted on who we can sign as well at the moment. Look, Joe Schmidt has one opinion on it and I am sure Rob Penney has another.
"No matter what I say, I am sure I will annoy one of them. I am sure Pat Lam has to do the best he can do for Connacht. To sign a guy of Mils Muliaina's quality is something."
The question is whether Munster can still hope to attract a similar quality of player; if we may ever again see crowds flocking to Shannon airport in an effort to catch a glimpse of a Doug Howlett or a Christian Cullen.
"Money plays a massive factor, but I'd like to think we can still compete," stresses O'Connell, whose side have signed Andrew Smith from Australia, though his departure before a World Cup is revealing.
"I just don't know if we can compete with a lot of the money that is on offer in France at the moment. So that is probably the biggest factor in it.
"We have been in semi-finals in the last two seasons and I think the quality of player is there in Munster. A lot of the players who have come through in the last two years are excellent players.
"They may not be household names yet, but I think a lot of them will be. I do think money plays a big role in signing players and it is difficult to match the French clubs."
Although there remains a curiously begrudging assessment of Rob Penney's two-year reign down south, O'Connell has nothing but praise for the Kiwi's legacy as he prepares to bequeath the reins to Anthony Foley.
"I certainly learned a lot from him," he enthuses, placing the Kiwi amid some exalted company in terms of pure coaching. "There are so many ways of playing the game of rugby.
"I'd say Rob, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt are probably the three people with the most clear-cut way of how they think it should be played, but they are completely different ways.
"So, I've learned an awful lot. It's something we're getting better and better at all the time.
"New Zealand play a very similar framework to the way we play at the moment – albeit they are a little bit more effective at it than we are.
"One thing I noticed when I saw them playing was the subtly in how they did it. We were probably lacking a lot of that, but I think it's getting better and better.
"There's obviously been some days where we were very poor and you'd ask yourself was this working. There's other days when we've been really good and you can really see the merits of it.
"There are times when it's really, really effective, so I think we've all learned a lot from the Rob Penney era and it's been beneficial to Munster rugby."
* Paul O'Connell was speaking at an event to support Toyota Ireland. O'Connell is a Toyota ambassador.