O’Connell back with a bang for Munster

Secondrow grabs early try in impressive showing against Connacht


Munster 22 Connacht 0:

This wasn’t just a welcome return to action for Paul O’Connell, but a welcome return to form for Munster as well; the two, of course, not being unrelated. From the moment the crowd roared as he soared into the air to claim Damien Varley’s first throw after 90 seconds, and all the more so after the try he plundered ten minutes into his return, all somehow seemed better in Munster’s world.

Varley added a brace of his own after two more O’Connell takes were the platform for driving mauls, the first within four minutes of the lock’s own score off a clever snipe and deft offload by their impressive young scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, while the hooker had more work for his second on 50 minutes.

But the residual disappointment of not further bridging the seven point gap to the play-off places with a bonus point try was more than offset by O’Connell’s display. With O’Connell the demanding and unifying glue that binds the Munster forwards, as with their two performances against Racing and Edinburgh back in October, at times you could throw a blanket over the pack.

It may only have been O’Connell’s third game in the Rob Penney reign, but no-one was more pleased than the coach. “The easy term for me, that sums him up, is that he's like a big security blanket,” said Penney. “You just know the detail's there, the challenging environment that you want to create where people are comfortable to be challenged, and the challenge is always there when he's about.”

“He's a very intelligent, driven, assiduous scholar of rugby and you just sense when you're putting the team out there and he's in it – and it's the first time I've really been able to do it because he was underdone when we had a crack against Racing early on in the year – that everybody understands what they're trying to do because if they don't they know that Paulie will challenge them and get the best out of them. You just see him on the park too, driving and dictating and really getting the best out of everybody. He's just a wonderful leader and a great man to have around.”

With O’Connell the fulcrum, Munster also earned the right to go wide with a powerful driving maul and plenty of hard straight carrying, notably from the outstanding James Coughlan and Dave Kilcoyne, while as pleasing for Penney and co would have been the performance of Casey Laulala.

The All Blacks centre hasn’t had the impact anticipated from him and his confidence has clearly suffered, but when Munster did expand their game to use the full width of the pitch, Laulala’s superb footwork often beat the first-up tackler and desire to free his hands made him the focal point of their running game.

With Sheridan, the Sligo-born, ex Connacht Under-19 scrum-half a sharp-witted hub, and Ronan O’Gara playing hard on the gain line, this pleasing mix to Munster’s game was also notable for its accuracy while, thankfully, not making the touchline the opposition’s best defender.

Penney accepted there was a better balance to Munster’s game, with his players learning to make better decisions on the ball. The first half-hour or so of “building the pressure and being able to consistently build pressure” was especially pleasing for Penney.

“I think we had something like 72% of the ball. On the flip side, we had a second half where we had some whoopsies, didn’t maintain ball, let guys into the breakdown and they got some turnovers on us and all of a sudden that pressure was released and we allowed Connacht to put us under pressure. So there was two extremes today a little bit but that first half was as good as we’ve probably had,” he said, noting there were only eight unforced errors in that period, albeit with 25 in the second.

Despite a run of three wins, initially Connacht appeared to be caught like rabbits in headlights. Lamenting their slow start after a two week break, Eric Elwood said: “We had numbers in the line, we weren’t getting line speed and we certainly weren’t getting any whack in our tackles whereas Munster were getting go forward ball, whether it was two, three or four metres. But it came from our errors and they marched us up the park.”

Having drawing another blank here after 25-0 and 17-0 losses away to Ulster and Leinster, Connacht appear to have a mental problem for away derbies. “I don’t think so,” maintained Elwood. “We had a really good two weeks, we prepared well and we just didn’t do it tonight for some reason. Our silly discipline just gave them the opportunity.

“Every time we went into the opposition half we either tried to force it or a simple catch and pass, a simple skill of two versus one, but we didn’t execute it. Not only did we not hold on to the ball, we didn’t defend properly. The game of rugby is quite simple, you either play with the ball or you play without it and we failed on both counts.”

Scoring sequence – 10 mins: O'Connell try, O'Gara con 7-0; 14: Varely try 12-0; 40 (+2): O'Gara pen 15-0; 50: Varley try, O'Gara con 22-0.

MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Sheridan; D Kilcoyne,D Varley, S Archer, Donncha O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, T O'Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Williams for Sheridan (57 mins), N Ronan for O'Donnell (58 mins), M Sherry for Varley, BJ Botha for Archer, B Holland for Dougall (all 60 mins), I Dineen for Downey (62 mins), I Keatley for Jones (68 mins), W du Preez for Kilcoyne (71 mins).

CONNACHT: R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, G Duffy (captain); D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Kearney, G Naoupu, A Browne, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Replacements: D Buckley for Wilkinson, M McCarthy for Naoupu (both 48 mins), R Loughney for White (51 mins), A Flavin for Harris-Wright (53 mins), P O'Donohoe fro Marmion 55 mins), F Vainikolo for Poolman (57 mins), E McKeon for Muldoon (62 mins), M Nikora for Parks (68 mins).

Sinbinned: Kearney (13-23 mins).
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU).