O'Connell: We must follow Leinster lead
There was a time in the not too distant past when Brian O'Driscoll was the Irish player pointing disconsolately southwards with envious nod of the head to over-achieving provincial adversaries.
Not any more.
Because now, with Leinster on the verge of matching their rivals' twin European successes, not to mention a unique League/Cup double, it is Munster who are flailing.
And now it is their talisman, Paul O'Connell, who must point enviously at another friendly foe and express pining regret that the standard bearers of Irish rugby are cast in a different colour these days.
A blue hue.
Following their dismal exit from the European Challenge Cup last weekend, Munster's only hope of salvaging something from the season rests on their impressive consistency within the Magners League.
Whether that will be enough to satiate Munster's salivating fan base is questionable; the players certainly deem it insufficient. Especially when a looming shadow envelops them from the north.
"All the current frustrations about our form are probably magnified as well by how well Leinster are playing," said O'Connell, whose latest resuscitation from injury wasn't enough to breathe life into his side's ailing European hopes.
"They have a very young, strong squad and it is tough for our supporters -- and us -- watching them, as well being so successful. They are playing a really good brand of rugby and they are the team that we have to aspire to. They are playing at the standard we have to aspire to."
Munster may get that opportunity sooner than they expected. Presuming Magners League form maintains its recent integrity, the two sides are slated to meet in a Grand Final at the end of this month.
"A lot of young players we have in the squad are very good and we have had a lot of injuries in the squad as well, and different things like that have contributed to our poor form in Europe, albeit (alongside) a very good run in the Magners League.
"I think it is there. We just have to find a big performance in the next few weeks. I think we have struggled in the last few semi-finals we have played in and we really need to produce a big performance now and get back on track.
"That's where our strength was, when it came to knockout rugby, we always upped another gear and, I suppose, recently we've stepped back another gear. Hopefully, in the next few weeks we can change that."
Leinster show little signs of reining back though, confirming yesterday that Damian Browne and Fionn Carr would arrive this summer, the latter returning to his home province, albeit with a pointedly abrupt one-year deal, presumably to soften his cough after a few months of unorthodox transfer tittle-tattle.
Richardt Strauss, the Special Project player, has also been secured until 2013, at which time, with assimilation, he will undoubtedly be Ireland's first-choice hooker -- especially now that possible foreign suitors have been repelled -- following his outrageous form this season.
Fringe out-halves Ian Madigan and Ian McKinley have both been retained, an encouraging decision from coach Joe Schmidt as it's a reflection of his commitment to indigenous youth.
Promising flanker Dominic Ryan (21) has also signed a fresh two-year-deal having featured in 22 games so far this season. Centre Brendan Macken, like Madigan, has extended his current deal, while scrum-half John Cooney joins McKinley in inking his first professional contract.
Jono Gibbes, Leinster's forwards coach, deftly off-loaded a query about the deliberate decision to hand Carr merely a one-year deal and was more keen to laud the qualities that have made Strauss so indispensable this season.
"He's not been a revelation to us because we knew all about the specific skills he had," enthused Gibbes. "This year, he's been able to showcase those an awful lot more than he was able to do last season. It's great news for us that he's able to stay for a lot longer.
"He's fitted into the group really well. His performances speak for themselves. He's offered a lot of energy. We have a saying about emptying the tank and he's certainly done that every time he's played for Leinster.
"But probably just as important, he's a great guy off the pitch in the squad environment, he works really hard. He's a bit like Rocky Elsom with the man of the match awards as well. He's just been really good value and I mean that off the field as much as what you guys see on the field.
"He's never talked to me about Ireland ambitions. I'm the Leinster coach, so I didn't think we'd be sitting down talking about that to be honest. He's not that kind of guy. He just wants to know what's expected of him, he goes away and works on that and looks to deliver. If people in the future think they can use him, he can adapt, but, at the moment, we don't discuss it."