Sunday 17 December 2017

More games the merrier for Reds talisman Paul O'Connell

Paul O'Connell is demanding a Munster win over Ulster
Paul O'Connell is demanding a Munster win over Ulster
Munster forwards coach Anthony Foley, left, and Paul O'Connell in conversation during training
David Kelly

David Kelly

While many players would be forgiven for having one eye on their holidays, Munster's 34-year-old captain Paul O'Connell doesn't want the season to end.

After suffering so many injuries in recent times, the former Lions captain knows that he is better off playing as many matches as possible, so if Munster can reach the Pro12 final, all the better for the Limerick man.

He will have one unavoidable unscheduled week off – when Munster could have been playing in a Heineken Cup final against Saracens. Instead, their focus is on winning the remaining silverware on offer.

The more games the merrier for O'Connell who starts this evening's dead rubber against Ulster after doing so in Edinburgh last weekend.

"A three-week break does not suit me," he declares. "I want to get as many games in a row as I can. Six weeks on the go, a week off and a small bit of training the week after is my ideal schedule.

"It never works out as smoothly as that, but that is what I want."

That would have been his schedule had Munster got the better of Toulon but, instead, the province intends to redouble its efforts to claim the Pro12.

It is more than likely that they must do so with a pair of road trips following an expected win against a weakened Ulster side tonight.


But coach Rob Penney has no fears about his side achieving the away wins in this competition, despite their agonising, mostly self-inflicted European reverse away from home.

"Yes, goodness sake, yes, we are," said the departing Kiwi, when asked whether he was prepared for a possible away double in both the semi-final and, should they get through, a final on May 31.

"I've got a lot of faith in these boys and I think they've got a lot of faith in themselves, which is great. It's never easy playing away, but I think we've had some reasonable successes away and it's not daunting for us, but we'll have to be good.

"We keep having to play good rugby to ensure we're in the hunt and if the team does that we've every chance."

Tonight will be a veritable training run as Ulster, already debilitated by injury and suspensions to key players, hold their players in reserve for a likely away tie in an RDS semi-final against Leinster next week.

With a seeding in the Rugby Champions Cup up for the grabs – even if the organisers haven't confirmed if this is, indeed, the case – there is still much to be played for on the domestic front.

"Ulster have probably been bitterly disappointed with the way things have gone for them in the last few weeks," says O'Connell of the northerners' own self-inflicted trauma in Europe.

"They have been very unlucky and I think they probably had the most confidence going into the Heineken Cup than they've had in a long time. To become undone in the way they did against Saracens was very disappointing.

"I'd say, same as ourselves, they are looking for consolation."

While Munster's wholesale changes – 10 in all – indicate their strength in depth – Ulster's radical overhaul of their roster ensures that what should be a grand inter-provincial occasion could develop into a damp squib for the neutral.

With Felix Jones named at full-back for Munster, Simon Zebo and Gerhard van den Heever are on the wings with Laulala partnered at centre by James Downey.

Ian Keatley and Duncan Williams are named at half-back, while talisman O'Connell will be joined in the second row by Dave Foley.

Ulster's youthful backline includes David McIlwaine, Stuart McCloskey, Rory Scholes, James McKinney and Michael Heaney.

Dan Tuohy is named captain in the pack alongside Lewis Stevenson, Mike McComish and Sean Doyle.

"Everybody who's involved this week is going out there to win," says McCloskey, a 21-year-old centre who was last week named the Academy player of the season.

"It's just exciting to play against some of the Munster guys as I've only really ever seen them on TV really.

"I've been watching Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan since I was 13, so it's exciting to get out there and play against them.

"I have played at Thomond before in an AIL game for Dungannon, but there was no-one there and there were echoes all around the place.

"Mark Anscombe hasn't spoken to us directly, but I would assume that everyone is going out there to try and keep their place.

"We know that's not going to be the case for everyone, but you still want to put in a very good performance so that you might like to think you're in with a shout to keep the place for the semi-final.

"Glasgow will more than likely beat Zebre, Munster will be going out to win and maybe get that second spot.

"I wouldn't say there's no pressure but it's definitely not the same as having to go down there to get a win and you want to put down a marker for next season as well as for the semi-finals."

Munster's last three matches in the Pro12 have all been won by the away side on the day and, although they were defeated by Glasgow at Thomond Park in their most recent home game, they have not lost back-to-back contests here in four years.

Ulster have already ensured they will finish fourth in the table, but have won only one of their last four Pro12 matches, including losing their last two away games, at Cardiff Blues and at Glasgow.

Ulster beat Munster 29-19 at Ravenhill in round 12, but have not achieved a season's double over the Munstermen since 2008/09, a run that will extend into another season at least.

Verdict: Munster

Munster – F Jones; G van den Heever, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), J Ryan; D Foley, P O'Connell; P Butler, S Dougall, J Coughlan.

Reps: Q MacDonald, J Cronin, A Cotter, B Holland, T O'Donnell, C Murray, JJ Hanrahan, K Earls.

Ulster – C Gilroy; D McIlwaine, M Allen, S McCloskey, R Scholes; J McKinney, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, A Warwick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy (capt); M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams.

Reps: K McCall, B Ross, A Macklin, N McComb, C Joyce, D Shanahan, R Andrew, P Nelson.

Ref – Nigel Owens (WRU)


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