O'Connell the inspiration for Munster
PAUL O'CONNELL'S fingerprints were all over Munster's much-improved performance against Connacht in Cork on Saturday night.
It was as if a calming influence had descended. Where before there had been more than a suggestion of chaos in the way Munster slavishly shovelled the ball from sideline to sideline in a less-than-effective game plan, there was more directness to their play.
It took O'Connell just 41 seconds to make an impact. Fledgling scrum-half Cathal Sheridan started just his second senior game for the side, and with his first possession nerves got the better of him and he was blocked down when attempting to kick clear.
That the 23-year-old went on to have a marvellous game – highlighted by O'Connell – had much to do with the injection of confidence Munster's talismanic leader gave him with a comforting and encouraging word following the block-down.
It's just one of the things O'Connell does for Munster. His presence is enough to inspire others. There's more to it with O'Connell, though, much more. Sixty seconds after his word with Sheridan he was plucking a line-out dart down from the skyline and directing the subsequent maul.
That line-out catch promoted a sustained period of shelling of the Connacht defences that eventually yielded a try after 10 minutes when, fittingly enough, O'Connell took a great off-load from Sheridan and charged over the line.
It was O'Connell's first try in a Munster shirt since April 2009 – "I was out injured for a spell of that time, though!" – and with it he announced his return in emphatic fashion.
What was evident was that under O'Connell's influence Munster were playing with a renewed sense of purpose and clarity. He was the focus and he gave them direction and, noticeably, the ball rarely made it to the tramlines in those opening exchanges.
It was also evident that Munster were making the right decisions, were attacking in the right places and, crucially, were not beholden to a game plan that demanded width even though the rewards were clearly coming from keeping the ball close.
"It's always been a requirement or an endeavour to try and get the guys to attack where the space is, no matter where that space is," said Rob Penney.
"We're learning together and trying to implement strategies that allow individuals with the skills sets to try and express themselves and that can mean robust carries through the middle."
Through the early exchanges Connacht were in real danger of being blown away by the ferocity of the Munster challenge. O'Connell was directing things, Dave Kilcoyne was barrelling through defensive tackles at ease and Casey Laulala – when the ball did go wider – was showing some of the fancy footwork that made him such a hit with Cardiff Blues.
And when Connacht second-row Mick Kearney was yellow carded after 12 minutes for a late body-check on Ronan O'Gara, it looked even more ominous.
Munster took advantage and another O'Connell line-out grab from the resultant penalty set Damien Varley up for his first try off the back of another driving maul.
It was exactly the wrong start for Connacht, who had harboured ambitions of overtaking Munster in the league standings before the game.
"We spoke about having a good start when we came down to Munster and obviously we wanted to match them physically, which is really important. We probably failed obviously on both those," said Eric Elwood.
"From my point of view the game was over after that 10-minute spell where we gave away a penalty in their '22'. We didn't see the ball for the next seven minutes, they got a try and then we gave away another penalty and a try. You can't do that against a team like Munster."
As things stand Munster are two places and seven points away from the play-off places and have probably run out of time with regard to making up that shortfall with just four games of the regulation season left.
Their competitive instinct will ensure they will continue to chase a place in the top four until the final whistle in their last game against Zebre but it's an open secret that their assignment in two week's time against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup is a priority.
"No matter what happens in the Rabo, we will still be competitive, but the Heineken Cup will be a stand-alone fixture for us," acknowledged Penney.
The pressure Munster exerted yielded a third try 10 minutes after half-time when Varley burrowed in after a series of pick-and-go moves. It afforded Munster more than 30 minutes to manufacture a fourth and bonus-point try.
That they couldn't is a credit to what was a magnificent defensive effort from Connacht, who should have been on the scoreboard themselves but for some poor handling errors which resulted in final passes not going to hand with the Munster line beckoning.
Connacht's best chance of a try came, ironically enough, during Munster's period of dominance in the first half when Kieran Marmion took a quick tap-penalty and made 50 metres only to be driven into touch by a combination of Doug Howlett and Denis Hurley deep in Munster's '22'.
Further chances were scarce, and with O'Connell and James Coughlan in particular foraging away, it seemed only a matter of time before a fourth Munster try was scored as the end approached and the visitors were under siege.
Connacht, to their enormous credit, repelled wave after wave of Munster attack in a frenetic final few minutes, denying the hosts a bonus point.
MUNSTER – F Jones (I Keatley 68); D Howlett, C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Sheridan (D Williams 57); D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 71), D Varley (M Sherry 60), S Archer (BJ Botha 60); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; T O'Donnell (N Ronan 58), S Dougall (B Holland 61), J Coughlan.
CONNACHT – R Henshaw; D Poolman (F Vainikolo 58), E Griffin, D McSharry, G Duffy; D Parks (M Nikora 68), K Marmion (P O'Donoghue 55); B Wilkinson (D Buckley 47), J Harris-Wright (A Flavin 53), N White (R Loughney 52); M Kearney, G Naoupu (M McCarthy 47); A Browne, W Faloon, J Muldoon.
Ref – A Rolland (IRFU).