Friday 20 April 2018

Boss confident 'once in a lifetime' star O'Connell will stay red

Munster talisman Paul O'Connell offloads as he is tackled by Gloucester's Sila Puafisi
Munster talisman Paul O'Connell offloads as he is tackled by Gloucester's Sila Puafisi
David Kelly

David Kelly

Career-defining decisions cannot be based upon emotion alone. But were Paul O'Connell to reflect on a week where his beaming smile and gritty determination combined so dreamily, it wouldn't be surprising to see him race to Dublin and put pen to paper on a new deal this morning.

Had the IRFU any sense, they would have already slipped an envelope under his door last night while he was sleeping. It is simply inconceivable to think of Munster without their talisman.

Which was probably why it may have seemed a bit galling to some that Michael Jackson's bombastic paean of self-importance, 'Man in the Mirror', was blasting from the team's dressing-room afterwards.

"I'm gonna make a change, for once in my life," crooned the late lamented loon. Surely not; after all, is O'Connell not Munster through and through?

"Of course he is," smiled coach Rob Penney. "I've answered that question in a way before, about players making their own choices for their own desires and they've got to make sure that they're making them for the right reasons.

"You see players making all sorts of decisions about their careers, not always the right ones, they're making them for the wrong reasons.

"I'm sure when the time is right for him to commit, he'll commit, whenever that is and obviously Munster are desperately keen to make sure he stays here because he is as red as you get."

Even Gloucester coach Nigel Davies paid tribute, saying: "He's phenomenal, isn't he? There are certain characters in teams who have a huge influence and effect. It's not only his ability as a player but how he galvanises the team and his sheer presence. It's a huge factor for Munster."

Just as in the Stoop coup against Harlequins in last season's quarter-final, another forward force emerged in Dave Foley, beginning his first Heineken Cup game alongside his totemic partner, demonstrating the kind of nuggety nastiness and physicality that mimicked O'Connell.

"It's like asking some of the younger blokes to go and outplay Richie McCaw," said Penney. "You get some players that are just once in a lifetime, once in a generation.

"I talk about Andrew Mehrtens, once in a lifetime, once in a generation player, then backed up by Dan Carter. It doesn't get any better than that, two world-class No 10s playing for 10 years each so there's 20 years of playing right there.

"Guys like Paulie, they don't come along every day. How many athletes of his ability have Ireland had, has the world had? He's just a genuine world-class player.

"With every organisation, whether he's with the Lions or with Ireland or with Munster, he just leads from the front and they're massive shoes to fill, asking young blokes to step in and overtake him.

"There's some good ones there coming along. I thought Foley was exceptional for his start in a Heineken Cup big match. That's just so pleasing for the future, that someone like him there is now gnawing away at the heels of guys."

The return to full fettle of Conor Murray and Simon Zebo was a further boon, as was the impressive form of Keith Earls, while the mental and physical resolution of Ian Keatley stood out in what was easily his best game of the term.


"I've a lot of faith in Ian and he deserves any plaudits because he's copped a lot of flak," said Penney of the man whose ability to decipher the Gloucester full-back Martyn Thomas' awful positioning created the space for Earls' try.

"You always want the boys to play with their heads up and see what's in front of them but yes, certainly, we'd identified some things early on around the line speed that they were going to bring and the opportunities that creates with space."

Keatley stamped his authority on the game from the off and was assured from the boot, save for a hairy opening cross-kick that skewed sideways.

"He owned the 10 jersey and hopefully that is the marker for him to kick on," added the Kiwi.

"He was hurt last week and like all good players they either bounce back or they don't and he's bounced back big time with a great performance.

"All you can say is it's great credit to the man for doing that because it's tough. The proof's in the pudding, I suppose. The performance was outstanding."

All eyes for the next few days and weeks will be on O'Connell, whose relaxed demeanour after the game as he soaked up plaudits from an ever-obsequious English media reflects his current mood.

Munster supporters will hope when this man looks in the mirror, he cannot see anything other than a red jersey. Make a change? To do so would be simply Wacko.

Irish Independent

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