O’Connell to return against Connacht
Talisman’s return tempered by Earls injury
Paul O'Connell’s return is a timely boost for Rob Penney and Munster. Photograph: Lorraine O'Sullivan/Inpho
The spate of injuries which have undermined Rob Penney's first season in charge of Munster shows no sign of abating and just as he welcomes Paul O'Connell back into the fold, he loses Keith Earls for possibly the remainder of the season.
Earls will be sidelined for six to eight weeks and will miss the Heineken Cup quarter-final on April 7 against Harlequins with a dislocated should.
O'Connell should be fine for that clash and his recovery - and a possible bid to a seat on the plane to Australia - steps up a significant level on Saturday when he will play his first game for Munster since October.
The former Lions skipper will play against Connacht at Musgrave Park, having followed up his appearance last week for Munster A with 80 minutes for Young Munster at the weekend.
Penney said the return of O'Connell, who underwent surgery on a back injury on New Year's Eve, is a huge boost to the squad and he said that the 33-year old was leading from the front in training.
"He is pretty unique in world rugby in a lot of regards and having some of his mana - a word we use in New Zealand which means ultimately respect and presence in the group. It is a Maoiri word that is all encompassing when someone holds a presence. When they have mana they have real presence and respect, they ooze it they don't just have it, and he is one of those people. There is very few of them in the world," said Penney.
O'Connell's ability to recover ahead of time seems to rub off on others and Simon Zebo, who broke a bone in his foot against England in the Six Nations, made a welcome return to the park yesterday.
But he only did light work at the training session at Cork IT and Penney reckons it will be a very tight call to see if he is available for the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Simon Zebo is making progress. There' s a big grey area coming up with the week before the quarter-final and the week after. We have got some specialist visits to have and all sorts, so we're optimistic without being overly optimistic. We'll just see but it is highly unlikely that he'll be available heading into that game.
"There is a window there of about three weeks, it could be earlier, it could be later but it is around the Quins and Leinster games. We'll just have to wait and see," said Penney.
But the Munster coach said that losing Earls was a big blow for the player and the team.
"It is a big disappointment for him and us. To lose a player of his calibre leaves a big hole. These things happen but it is really unfortunate. He has had a real injury interrupted season, which is frustrating.
Meanwhile, Munster yesterday confirmed that Peter Stringer would remain at Bath until the end of the season. The 35-year old, whose Munster contract expires at the end of the season, went to Bath on loan in January.