Paul O'Connell 'available' for Munster showdown with Harlequins
A BRACING cold day to feel the heat of the action in the bones once again.
How would you feel about Rome this weekend, Paulie?
"Ah here, I'm injury free, but I don't know if I'm fit!"
While his Irish colleagues endure a disappointing Six Nations campaign, there is at least some good injury news on the horizon.
Like a tentative squirrel emerging from a long hibernation, a ravenous Paul O'Connell launched himself upon another road to recovery amid a captive audience at the University of Limerick yesterday.
A gloriously dry, crisp spring sunshine illuminated the proceedings for the audience of some 2,000 or so, be they students skipping lectures, men and women skipping work or dog-walkers taking a break.
Perhaps some were in attendance simply to hearten a local, and national, folk hero.
His number one fan, a man bedecked with O'Connell's eponymous jersey, liberally sprinkled with signed autographs and mementoes, roared a familiar greeting as he emerged from the UL Arena bowels.
"I've been doing a lot of babysitting with Paddy, so I hope they get their money's worth," jokes O'Connell. They do.
Within 48 seconds, with such familiar, perennial poise, O'Connell skyscrapes to pluck a line-out from the biting cold air.
The crowd roars its approbation. "No fault, Paulie!" "He's back!"
Another 40 seconds and he hits his first ruck, a little too eagerly, missing the clear-out, but still hefting his frame into the pile of prone, prostrate body mass.
He looks as if he needs a stone weight's worth of pasta and chicken, but the 33-year-old knows his body well enough now that he is utterly confident of ascertaining his required fighting weight.
Barrelling into contact moments later, he thunders disarmingly past a soft Leinster shoulder, entreating another guttural roar from the sidelines.
Already, he is blowing from ruck to ruck, but, as Darragh Ó Sé used to often memorably declare, the dirty petrol needed recycling.
"Yeah, it did," he says. Such is his hitherto fragile status, we are asking him about the quality of air being processed through his puffed cheeks.
"I was struggling a bit. I've done plenty of fitness sessions, which in some ways are harder than this.
"But it's just the intensity of getting up off the ground, of trying to be dynamic and get up and do it again five or six times in a row.
"That's something that's hard to replicate in training, especially in contact. So, yeah, I was definitely blowing, but I'm delighted. I don't feel any ill-effects now or anything. I feel good.
"Niall O'Donovan said to me, 'the first 10 minutes were hard.' I said to him the second and third and fourth 10 minutes were even harder! I got my hands on the ball a lot.
"I felt okay carrying the ball, I probably missed a few rucks when I went in and didn't really clear anyone out. That comes with sharpness."
When he was in rehab, uncertain as to the timetable for recovery on the latest ailment to his back, he was wholly unsure as to the quality of each day's work, at least until he went under the surgeon's knife on New Year's Eve.
In the 10 weeks since, the achievements have been tangible. Yesterday's 40 minutes – a pre-planned time limit – offered yet more forceful encouragement that everything is on track.
Pro12 games against Connacht and Glasgow later this month and, then, tantalisingly for the feverish Munster support who thronged the university yesterday afternoon, his side's Heineken Cup quarter-finial clash next month, are firmly in his sights.
"The plan was to play today and see how I was tomorrow," he reports. "And then I'll start planning again from there.
"The hope would be to be involved in the next couple of Rabo games, first and foremost. The more games I can play the better.
"I think the Heineken Cup is definitely on for me. I'm available for selection anyway. The two Donnachas (Ryan and O'Callaghan) have been playing very well, so we'll see what happens."
Carrying well, O'Connell's work rate is pretty impressive considering he has only played twice this season, his season restricted to Munster's opening two Heineken Cup pool games way back in October.
His side have missed him; so too his country. A sumptuous offload to prop John Ryan demonstrates that he has had plenty of time to work on the deft handling skills demanded by new Munster head coach Rob Penney.
He tackles well, too, but, when he disappears momentarily into one ruck, there is a hush among the crowd, replaced by a restorative hubbub when the second-row unfurls himself from the carnage and gambols towards the next breakdown.
This is not a stroll in the park.
"I'm really pleased for him that he got through 40 minutes and looked vigorous," notes an observant Penney.
"I was watching him closely around the contact area, the areas you need to be robust and he could have been potentially compromised but he didn't look like he was flinching at any time.
"He looks like he is on the mend and he is on track for a little bit more footie in the next week or so.
"The next 48 hours will be a big indicator of his ability to play in the next few weeks."
O'Connell is already supremely confident; already, perhaps, eyeing up a mouthwatering clash in the "killing fields" for Young Munster against aristocrats Cork Constitution.
"I'm fairly grand now," he reports. "I'm fairly sure I won't feel it in the morning.
"There's times when you hurt something or done something. I'm sure I'll be sore, but not sore in a way that would worry me, I hope."
That wish is not borne by him alone.