O'Connell targets April for a return to competitive action


RUGBY:Paul O’Connell has targeted a return to competitive action in April after undergoing surgery to correct a bulging disc that was pressing on a nerve in his lower back. The Munster, Ireland and Lions secondrow had the operation in a Dublin hospital on New Year’s Eve and yesterday he was discharged from hospital to begin his rehabilitation at home.

The 33-year-old is optimistic that the procedure may provide a solution to what has been a hugely frustrating period beset by injury. He sustained knee ligament damage in Ireland’s 17-17 draw with France in a Six Nations Championship match at Stade de France on March 4th; an injury that kept him sidelined for seven months and saw him miss the three Test summer series in New Zealand.

He returned to play the opening two rounds of the Heineken Cup but following Munster’s 33-0 victory over Edinburgh at Thomond Park on October 21st a disc problem in his lower back flared up again. He had a similar issue in 2002 that required an operation and suffered a recurrence of the problem in 2008, albeit on that occasional surgical intervention wasn’t required.

When the problem arose again last October the medical prognosis was to initially treat the injury in a similar vein to 2008. However, following initial progress the rate of improvement slowed appreciably to a point whereby further medical consultation advocated surgery to try and conclusively deal with the long-standing complaint.

O’Connell admitted: “I’m delighted with the way the operation went. More importantly, so too are the medical team who carried out the operation and I am very grateful to all concerned. My aim now is to start rehab as soon as is practicable. In terms of a return, I’d be looking at early April when hopefully Munster will be in contention for trophies on two fronts.”

He will miss the province’s final two rounds in the pool stage of the Heineken Cup and Ireland’s entire Six Nations Championship, which begins next month with a trip to the Millennium Stadium to take on Wales.

Strong contender

Having captained the Lions to South Africa in 2009 he was, prior to injury, a strong contender for a leadership role on this summer’s tour to Australia but his immediate goal will be simply to get back playing rugby on a consistent basis.

There was some further positive news for Munster coach Rob Penney with the confirmation that Ireland’s Keith Earls will be available for Saturday’s game against the Cardiff Blues at Musgrave Park. Earls suffered a groin strain in the first of back-to-back European fixtures against Saracens at Thomond Park last month and hasn’t played since, missing the return game against the English club and also interprovincial skirmishes against Connacht and Ulster.

CJ Stander, the 22-year-old South African-born flanker who made such an impressive start to his Munster career, is progressing from a broken hand and is likely to be back playing by the end of the month. He was not registered on Munster’s European roster because of the injury so even if he did recover in time he wouldn’t have been available for upcoming pool matches against Edinburgh and Racing Metro 92.

Meanwhile, Ulster medical staff have suggested that Ireland wing Craig Gilroy will be fit for the province’s game against the Scarlets at Ravenhill on Friday night, despite shipping a heavy knock to a knee – he was replaced immediately – with nine minutes remaining in the 24-10 defeat to Munster at Thomond Park last weekend. However, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has suggested that recovering quicker than originally anticipated from a fractured arm his captain and secondrow Johann Muller is unlikely to be back in time for the final two European pool matches.

A week early

“He (Johann) is getting closer and closer. He is itching to get out there again, but I would say Castres (round six), at this stage, is maybe going to be a week early for him. Really, as much as we want him, maybe rugby this side of the break (before the Six Nations) is going to be a bit early,” said Anscombe.

He is expected to restore a number of front-line players to the team for the game against the Scarlets, having rested them for the Munster match.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt will decide on whether to introduce long-term injury victims Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin O’Malley and Mark Flanagan to the match squad for Friday night’s game against Edinburgh at Murrayfield. He will make his decision tomorrow. “With a short six-day turnaround, the focus in the early part of this week is about nursing knocks and reintegrating players back into the group as a number of players haven’t had much game time in recent weeks,” he said.

“It can be easy to allow your mind to drift because January is shaping up to be a big month for us in the context of the season across both competitions.”