Tuesday 17 October 2017

Talisman 'half a game away' from full fitness

Conor George

Conor George

Paul O'Connell was described as Munster's "security blanket" by coach Rob Penney after the second-row's man-of-the-match performance against Connacht.

Penney was effusive in his praise of O'Connell's efforts and it was easy to see why.

O'Connell scored his first try since April 2009, was Munster's highest ball-carrier, dominated the line-outs and played 80 minutes for the first time in nearly a year. It is astonishing to realise that the last time O'Connell started and finished a match for anyone was against Scarlets in April last year.

He wasn't at the peak of his powers. There is, he acknowledged, some room for improvement, especially at the breakdown – "the team who wins the breakdown usually wins the game" – but on the night of Lazarus' return, it would surely be churlish in the extreme to focus on the negatives.

The crowd who acclaimed his performance didn't care for O'Connell's perfectionist ways. They were simply delighted to have their talisman back in their beloved fire-engine red uniform.

The start couldn't have been scripted better, with O'Connell barrelling his way over for the game's first try after 10 minutes when he took a marvellous offload from fledgling scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, who keeps on impressing.

"I think my last try was way back in 2009, although I have been injured for quite a bit of that period," said O'Connell.

"I was actually talking about it the other day with someone. I think I was described as being 'prolific' once upon a time.

"That hasn't been the case for a while. So it was great to get on the scoresheet."

O'Connell actually made his presence felt earlier than that. The game was barely 90 seconds old when he took his first line-out since October.

That Munster mauled the possession deep into the Connacht '22' only amplified just how important a player he is to them.

Indeed his line-out work was excellent. There was one butchered five-man line at one stage but in the main he was outstanding.

There was even one stand-out rampaging run in the second half when he fended off two Connacht defenders with one meaty paw before setting up ruck ball for another assault on the visitors' line. It was magnificent to see.

O'Connell was blowing hard towards the end as the exertions took their toll but it was understandable after such hard graft.

"When I saw Billy Holland coming on towards the end I realised I was on for the rest of the game and my heart sank a little!

"It was great to get through the 80 minutes though. It usually takes me maybe three games to get my fitness back fully and I'm half a game away from that now.

"Sometimes high-tempo games like this one are easier on the lungs to play in. For me it's about being able to be dynamic, get up off the ground and be dynamic again.

"I feel really good. I've done a lot of fitness work coming up to last week but you just can't replicate line-out jumping, mauling, scrummaging and even communicating when you're tired.

"It's only in games you get that and this was a big game for me in that regard. It was a really good game for me to play in, very enjoyable and it's great to be able to play. I've spent too many games watching from the stands.

"I'm enjoying playing. That's all you want really, to be able to play matches."

As he left the pitch the crowd feted their hero. The cut on his nose was a reminder of the battle that he had directed.

His clenched fist and raised thumb acknowledged the crowd's appreciation of his efforts.

Paulie's back.

Irish Independent

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