Young Munster guns following in O’Connell’s massive footsteps
New generation continue to be inspired by revered leader
Munster’s Peter O’Mahony scores his side’s second try during the Heineken Cup, Pool Six match at Kingsholm. Photo: David Davies/PA
Dave Foley has been duped. The 25-year-old clearly believes the constancy of Paul O’Connell’s excellence is a normal standard to aspire towards and not a once-in-a-lifetime, freakish happening.
This was best seen by Munster’s latest locking partner for O’Connell almost pulverising his opposite number Elliott Stooke, such was his desire to influence Ian Keatley’s hanging kick off to the second half.
Just mimicking Paulie.
Being on the road with Munster the mind can’t but wander back to another time.
Squint your eyes watching Tommy O’Donnell and it could be Denis Leamy. The ferocity of James Coughlan’s actions are not unlike the way Anthony Foley used to go about his business.
Of course Foley, lauded for his defensive coaching by Rob Penney, and Alan Quinlan, up in the television gantry, are visible reminders of a proud legacy.
Alas, David Wallace and Leamy have passed into shadow but their heroic exploits on English and French fields permeate the next generation.
You see Jerry Flannery in the abandon that Damien Varley rumbles into collisions. More evidence is needed, but there are signs of a vicious dog in James Cronin not seen since Peter Clohessy.
Peter O’Mahony, like Quinlan, refuses to let a game pass without checking the opposing enforcer’s stomach for the fight.
Point is, when the moment has demanded it in Perpignan and now Gloucester, Munster have remained true to their old ways.
Saturday’s defensive resilience in the face of hardly creative yet brutal Gloucester waves can be comfortably filed among their storied European pages. That it was Felix Jones and Johne Murphy, assisted by Casey Laulala, making the last -ditch tackles when Gloucester stretched them to their thinnest will make critiquing this defensive master class particularly arduous.
The line held. Charlie Sharples’ try on the stroke of half-time must be commended. Nine tacklers were beaten by pace and skill with the breach coming from Shane Monahan’s expert offload to Stooke.
But one figure continues to stand above the others. Munster’s intimidating, unrelenting personality will be retained so long as O’Connell is togged out.
Textbook turnovers were in evidence as he outworked the other seven forwards in the attritional stakes to be deservedly named man of the match.
Penney had no problem voicing the ultimate compliment a Kiwi can bequeath upon a rugby player.
“It’s like asking some of the younger blokes to go and out play Richie McCaw.”
The coach asked if he would prefer to see O’Mahony or O’Donnell becoming more influential than a man who has cast the longest of shadows over modern Irish sport since concussing himself scoring a try on debut against Wales in 2002.
Kieran Read’s progress to world’s greatest player managed to partially eclipse McCaw in 2013, much like Europe’s most destructive flanker Seán O’Brien occasionally betters O’Connell in a green jersey.
But in November it was McCaw who mattered most in those painful last-ditch rumbles into Irish territory, much like it was O’Connell who thundered into Gloucester when the spark was needed to tear the heart out of The Shed.
“You get some players who are just once in a lifetime, once in a generation,” Penney continued. “I often talk about Andrew Mertens, a once in a lifetime, once in a generation player backed up by Dan Carter. It doesn’t get any better than that, two world-class tens for 10 years so that’s 20 years of international rugby.
“So Paulie, I mean, how many athletes of his ability has Ireland had, has the world had? They don’t come along very often. Every organisation whether it be with the Lions or Ireland or Munster he leads from the front.
“They are massive shoes to fill, asking young blokes to step up and over take him. There are some good one’s there coming along, I thought Fols was exceptional for a first start in a Heineken Cup. That’s just so pleasing for the future that someone like him is now gnawing away at the heels and you could probably just about say he is up there matching the foot work of the big boys in front of him, which is great.”
The constant war continues then. Different but the same.