Out of the shadows, Munster’s Superman swoops on the Stoop to tackle Harlequins
Paul O’Connell adamant last week’s Glasgow rout has left no baggage
Paul O’Connell knows Munster are up against it in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins, but he is adamant they are up to the challenge. Photograph: Morgan Treacy Inpho
When Paul O’Connell made his stirring and stunning return to action and form against Connacht a fortnight ago, rarely had a team looked so in need of Superman powers. But much of the ensuing feel-good factor arising from that 22-0 defeat was undone by the scale of last week, when not even Superman could prevent their worst defeat in almost nine years.
In mitigation, there is some merit in the claim that three intercept tries and the ensuing 21 points disfigured the scoreline of 51-24, and the 24 part further underlines that Munster played plenty of rugby.
The problem, of course, is where and how they play their rugby.
Reflecting on a “very disappointing” night in Glasgow, O’Connell was nonetheless on message.
“We started by conceding a try but our first 40 minutes overall were very good. I thought we played very good rugby, scored two good tries and then started doing silly things, which we’ve kinda done all year, similar to what we did against Connacht when we started really well but then made silly errors and let them back into it.”
For much of the season Munster have looked to be forcing a wider, more expansive style, with forwards as liable to be on the wings as backs after a few phases, and the danger must be the events of Glasgow would re-enforce any doubts in their minds they can play this Canterburyesque game.
Yet O’Connell was adamant it had not undermined their confidence ahead of tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop.
“No it doesn’t at all. I think if things were happening that couldn’t be rectified very easily then it probably would, but I think things like what happened there can be rectified very easily and that’s what we will be aiming to do.
“It was tough and we were disappointed after the first one (intercept try) but we swept it under the carpet and went back up the pitch and scored fairly easily; we managed to get another try, a really good try but then they kicked off to us, we took the kick off, put together a really good maul, where we mauled them about 10 metres, and were really on the front foot but threw another intercept pass.”
“They’re silly errors, frustrating things to happen, but as a team you just have to move on and that’s what we did in the game.
“Obviously the one towards the end (intercept again) was frustrating and sealed the match but I don’t think it smashed our confidence; it was very frustrating and disappointing but I think the way we played in the first half showed us a bit about ourselves, it was a great mixture of mauling, tight play and wide play and that’s what we want to do.”
On this weekend four years ago, Munster produced arguably the most complete 80-minute performance of their 13 quarter-finals to date, filleting the Ospreys by 43-9 with a performance that was immediately reflected in their record high contingent in the Lions squad, which was announced the following week.
But with Doug Howlett’s invaluable big-match experience now lost through injury, and Donncha O’Callaghan demoted to the bench, O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara are now not only the only two survivors from that starting XV, but the only two of the team with over 50 caps in this competition.
Keeping a close eye on O’Connell’s form at the Stoop tomorrow will be Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
O’Connell was not of a mind to draw comfort from Munster’s celebrated habit of often playing poorly a week out from returning to European action.
“No, I don’t think so, certainly not in recent years. There probably was inconsistency going back before, a good few years ago, but that certainly wasn’t our plan at the weekend.”
Hence, viewed from the outside, it’s valid to ask where the self-belief might come from to topple the English champions in their own backyard .
“Obviously, belief isn’t as high as we would like it to be,” he admitted. “If we were underdogs before this game (against Glasgow) then obviously we are massive underdogs now. We probably need to look at ourselves all across the board.
“To win these big games you need players playing well, showing form and we haven’t done that, so it is a really tough situation for us but we’ve been here before whereby having not shown form, in the Gaffney era here when we struggled in the Celtic League, but we always performed well in the Heineken Cup and that’s what we will be hoping to do again this weekend.”
The Stoop is arguably the noisiest cauldron of any ground in the Premiership, and by keeping this quarter-final there, Harlequins have shortened the odds on them winning through.
They are not the soft touches up front a vintage Munster might have targeted in their pomp, with James Johnston (brother of Census) locking their scrum. And despite a run of three defeats, ’Quins produced plenty of their high tempo, offloading rugby in losing away to Gloucester last week.
“It’s going to be an incredibly tough game; they’re a team full of confidence, a lot of English internationals and Nick Evans playing ten who would, if Dan Carter wasn’t there, probably be the New Zealand outhalf for the last number of years.
“They’re Premiership champions, they went through their group stages relatively unscathed, so they are an excellent side, playing great rugby and they’re full of confidence. And they’re probably very happy they got us at home of all the other seven teams.”
Conor O’Shea has said he anticipates Munster reverting to the cup-style rugby on which they were reared and which has served them so well.
“I think it’s important we do what is required of us at every moment,” said O’Connell. “If it’s required of us to play it tight then we need to take them on there . . . it is important we do that.
Find the space
“It is important, like any game, we find the space, to kick it or run it or force your way there. I don’t think that changes from week to week but it is a big game, it’s a quarter-final and it is going to be very tight.
“The bigger games become, the tighter players become and the less rugby is played at times, and if that happens then hopefully we will be able to play it both ways, the same as we know they are capable of doing. They can play a very good expansive wide game and can play it very tight as well.”