Shane Jennings emerges to confront Leinster's critics
Despite carping from former players, flanker still enjoying the journey as he embarks upon final few laps of career
WHEN Shane Jennings woke up last Saturday, it wasn't that he suddenly felt how old he was. It was just that now he noticed how old he felt.
And so instead of perhaps jumping, or at least stepping gingerly, from his bed, he simply rolled out of it. Pain can do that to any man.
For Jennings, it was an instant reminder of the previous night's belated return to the competitive fray after too long on the sidelines; even at just 33, a long career means that absence makes the body become more brittle.
"I was blowing," he admits of his Connacht RDS comeback. "I felt pretty unfit and felt sore next day.
"I couldn't get out of bed properly. That takes some time to get used to as well. It is like pre-season again getting back into training."
He returned to action against the same opposition where his season had cruelly splintered; it was against Connacht in week three, an impact injury which hyper-extended his knee backwards.
Pop went his hammer and a chunk of playing time; it was high grade two damage in medical terms, which equates to eight to ten weeks. By week eight, he was banging down a door to get back by week ten.
The door wouldn't budge and the hammer popped in its reluctance to be rushed. Another five weeks. And still it argues.
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"I thought it was going to go at the weekend to be honest," he gulps ruefully of the return to match conditions which can never replicate training.
"I didn't have that much confidence in it. I just got a smack, a heavy smack. I'm not used to the bumps. I just took a smack and it took a few seconds to get right, that's all. Thankfully it was very good."
So was Jennings. Not just the try that secured Leinster an unbreakable clinch on the game but his presence, too. Perhaps Leinster have been guilty of taking his excellence for granted. Or maybe the reverse is true?
"I'm 33 so you do take things for granted and think it's just another game," he consents. "This, that and the other. Week in, week out.
"But when it's taken away from you, and you are on the outside, and you're looking at lads playing it sort of solidifies the thoughts in your head that you enjoy it.
"You want to be back and you want to be involved. I'm coming to the end of my career, not that it's going to be next year or this year, but there are not many years left.
"So you say to yourself 'Do you know what? I actually enjoy it and I want to be involved!'
"Especially since I didn't know when I was going to be back. I couldn't run for about four or six weeks so that was very frustrating.
"When you have a lot of time and you are thinking of everything - 'What am I going to do?' - it made me realise that I really enjoy it and I want to play."
His enforced restraint allowed him a different perspective of Leinster's season thus far; he has taken a glimpse from outside the tent as well from within; the torrent of criticism has surprised him.
Although some of his former colleagues have arguably propelled the most violent brickbats, the collective media serves as a general repository into which this most senior of statesmen can deliver his rejoinder.
"From a player's point of view I think you guys don't have the greatest understanding of what goes on in a team environment," he says calmly.
"You're obviously paid to have your opinion but when there is criticism coming about the style of play and not fully understanding the reasons and what's going on behind closed doors it is tough to hear because you take it personally.
"I was hurting like everyone else. Granted, I don't read papers but you hear things and I certainly don't want any of our coaches or any of our players picking up criticism because we know more than anybody else.
"We've dug in at times with some guys carrying knocks that people didn't know about, we're hurt and getting through games. The reality is there are good teams around, good players that want to kick lumps out of us.
"Yeah it's been a tough couple of weeks but we are still in contention in the league, we are still in contention in Europe and it's an important couple of weeks coming up because we are playing some good teams who are in and around us in the league."
Continuing with Munster on St Stephen's Day in Thomond Park; it's a mouth-watering clash but, sadly for punters, one thieved of many star performers. Although Jennings won't be sorry if Conor Murray, for one, is marked absent as is expected to be the case.
"Hopefully he won't be playing because he is an Irish player and because that's the sort of respect I have for him," says the openside. "He's really dangerous around the ruck and good at bringing players into the game.
"His kicking has improved and added to all that, he is very, very physical.
"He can mix it around when he carries the ball and he's got a good understanding of getting other players into the game."
There's a bigger picture for Leinster, though, regardless of individual battles; collectively, Munster did a number on them last time out on their own turf.
"The last time we played them they beat us up. They had a 20 or 30-minute period where they dominated us and that was the winning of the game for them," says Jennings.
"Knowing Anthony Foley and the way the Munster guys play, it's the old cliché and you heard it before, but they've a massive pride when they play in Limerick and represent their province.
"So it's going to be a big challenge for us and we are going to have to improve on what we did last week.
"It's hard to keep focused. I enjoy Christmas at home, having a few beers and taking it easy. But you just can't do it."
He'll have the one if they win.