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Paul O'Connell: 'Our chances are slim, but we've done it before'

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Paul O'Connell and Munster go to Saracens on Saturday knowing anything other than a win will see them fail to qualify

Paul O'Connell and Munster go to Saracens on Saturday knowing anything other than a win will see them fail to qualify

SPORTSFILE

Despite trailing 18-3 early on, 21-9 at half-time and then 34-23 with eight minutes left, Declan Kidney’s men somehow conspired to emerge with an astonishing victory.

Despite trailing 18-3 early on, 21-9 at half-time and then 34-23 with eight minutes left, Declan Kidney’s men somehow conspired to emerge with an astonishing victory.

SPORTSFILE

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Paul O'Connell and Munster go to Saracens on Saturday knowing anything other than a win will see them fail to qualify

THE END may be nigh, but the fear never recedes. Paul O'Connell is contemplating retirement, but he remains driven by the consequences that defeat might hold.

The feeling must be familiar at this stage given Munster have rarely, if ever, made life easy for themselves in Europe.

Lose to Saracens on Saturday and it's the end of the road regardless of what happens eight days later at Thomond Park, and the prospect of a home dead rubber against Sale Sharks is beyond the pale.

Win, and they stay in the hunt by the skin of their teeth. They earned this shot through their refusal to die in Clermont, and O'Connell and the squad are intent on taking it.

"They're probably slim," the Ireland captain said of his team's chances of remaining in the competition beyond the pool stage.

"We have to do something I wouldn't say that we haven't done before, I think in Anthony (Foley)'s era we were in a similar position when we lost to Perpignan over there (in 2003, the year of the 'Miracle Match'), and we managed to pull through but it's going to take a little bit of luck to go away to Saracens and to win this game because it is going to be really difficult.

"So if we can do that, we give ourselves a chance.

EDGY

"These weeks are as hard as ever. They're nervy, edgy weeks in the build-up.

"I suppose you're afraid of the consequences of losing and you know what opportunities winning can bring.

"I know how tough it is going over there. They're a really clever team, very hard to analyse, very unpredictable.

They prey on a lot of your errors and they force teams into errors, so it's going to be a very tough game for us.

"It would be fantastic to get a result, get a win over there and give ourselves a shout and a chance of qualifying, but it's going to be very difficult."

They say it's the hope that kills you, but O'Connell is setting realistic expectations for players and fans alike.

Despite losing most of the storied team who delivered titles in 2006 and 2008, Munster have managed to reach the semi-finals in both of the last two seasons.

Their legendary second-row is the main on-field link between the two eras, but he admits the current generation have a way to go before they can claim to match their predecessors.

In particular, they need to find consistency but creating their own magic moments in games like Saturday's would also be of help in building their own aura.

"It's hard to compare," he said. "It's a different landscape with the way the French teams are. It's very hard to compare. I know that the work ethic of the team is incredible.

"I know guys are incredibly eager to be successful and they certainly is pressure on the team from that '06, '08 crew.

"It was a special group of players that came together with an AIL grounding. It's kind of very different to the way players come into a professional set-up, that was a very different group of players. Potentially we can be as good; we just don't always meet that potential when we play. For the last two years we have been inconsistent.

"When we are good we are very, very good but we don't seem to back it up week on week like Leinster have done in previous years or Toulon seem to do or Clermont seem to do.

"That is where we need to get to if we want to emulate that team."

The men who won those trophies have mostly retired or moved on at this stage and O'Connell is thinking about moving into their realm after this autumn's World Cup or at the end of next season.

But the tradition they left behind still counts for something, the 35-year-old says, even if the players who will face Saracens are drawn from a different generation.

"It probably matters. I think tradition is a good thing," he said.

"You look at the way the lads are preparing for this week. They know there is something important to be protected and something important to play for.

"It probably leads to, in some ways, a kind of a nervy, edgy week and a nervy, edgy build-up. Even if you look at the bonus point we managed to get against Clermont at the end of the game, we were down and out. . . I think it shows that the team has good values and that we're clever and that we never gave up and hopefully we'll show that again this weekend."

That 'never say die' attitude will need to be complemented by a level of accuracy, but O'Connell wants his team-mates to rise to the challenge.

"For us anyway, when you look at their pack, and the size of their pack, you look at the strength in depth they have, we need to be ready to play, I suppose, bigger than we are," he explained.

"That's what we've done in the past in these European Cup games, we've played bigger than we are in terms of the teams we've played and the packs we've taken on.

"That's what those high emotional levels give you but it's probably irrelevant if you're not accurate in what you're doing.

"Guys know what's at stake and it kind of happens naturally. I think you need a good combination.

"Rugby's still a physical game and you need to be ready emotionally to dig in and go hard but you need to be accurate as well.

"I think if you look at our first game (against Saracens) we had a great combination of both.

"It was a brilliant atmosphere in Thomond Park, we were really up for the game and really accurate in everything we did. We kicked really well, our set-piece was good, lineout, scrum."

That win gives them a template to work from, their tradition the belief. O'Connell hasn't got too many days like this left in red and he's unlikely to go down without a fight.

Touchlines - A sideways look at the oval office

David Kelly

Saracens 34 Munster 35

Sunday, November 28, 1999, Vicarage Road, Pool 4

A remarkable stepping stone on Munster's European odyssey; despite trailing 18-3 early on, 21-9 at half-time and then 34-23 with eight minutes left, Declan Kidney's men somehow conspired to emerge with an astonishing victory.

Saracens' refusal to sell tickets to fans with "Irish accents" still harbours echoes of this stunning reverse when signs warning that it was a criminal offence to enter the playing field didn't deter the 300 or so Munster supporters from gleefully barrelling through the padlocked gates at the final whistle.

"Before this game, people used to come to Thomond Park to watch the stars from opposing teams," ruminated then assistant coach and current Munster manager Niall O'Donovan. "After this result, they came to Limerick to watch us."

Jeremy Staunton's late try, converted by Ronan O'Gara, sealed the famous win which also ensured that Kidney's unique coaching skills received a stamp of approval.

Before the game, he interrupted a team meeting by operating a motorised car while donning a Fez; he was warning his side of the manifold distractions that would await them at the Watford venue.

IRFU launch special Tag Rugby programme

HATS off to the IRFU who have launched the Xcessible Youth Sport Initiative, a three-year national programme aimed at increasing the participation of children with disabilities in physical activity and sport.

The Special Schools Tag Rugby will provide children with intellectual disabilities opportunities to play this sport at a local level through a school/club link. It will be implemented on a weekly basis within Special Schools.

The CARA Centre, whose aim is to promote sport for people with disabilities, approached the IRFU to partner in this initiative.

To further enhance the sustainability of the Special Schools Tag Rugby, IRFU have recently completed the National Disability Inclusion Training coordinated by the CARA Centre.

Quote of the week

"They have a manager in Jake White who was being a smartarse."

- Oyonnax wing Silvère Tian slates World Cup winning coach Jake White who claimed he didn't want his Montpellier team to play in a game watched by "five men and a dog". His side lost 20-13, watched by quite a few men and an unknown number of canines.

Number of the weekend

81 Could the next fortnight mark the end of Paul O'Connell's storied association with the European Cup? The Ireland captain is contemplating retirement after the World Cup and, if he goes through with it, the man who has played 81 times for Munster in Europe could have just two games left.

Tweet of the week

@LynaghMichael

Might go back to bed. Slipped over, then splashed by passing bus walking to station. Get there,train cancelled. Nice start. Can only get better

It doesn't matter what you've achieved, a bad day's a bad day

How influential is a 4G pitch?

The presence of an artificial surface at Saracens' Allianz Park home is causing plenty of teeth-gnashing down Munster way, but how much of an advantage is it for the English side?

Well, since moving to their new home last season the beaten Heineken Cup and Premiership finalists have won 29 of their 32 games on the fake sod.

It's an intimidating stat, one that demands respect, but are Saracens just a good team?

Closer to home, Cardiff Blues have been playing on a similar surface to the Londoners in the Guinness Pro12 and their record is far less intimidating.

Since installing the 4G pitch at the Arms Park, the Blues have played 25 games, winning 14 and losing 11. Of those 11, six defeats have come at the hands of Irish teams, with Connacht and Ulster losing on their first visits, but Munster and Leinster both winning on their returns.

Anthony Foley's side are well able to deal with the pitch; it's the Saracens team they should be worried about.

Irish Independent