Time to wrap the green flag around them

 

THE RUMOUR mill, as ever in Munster and particularly concerning Paul O’Connell, has been in overdrive in recent weeks but the one-time Munster, Ireland and Lions’ captain is adamant he will be back playing “in the next few weeks”. Beyond that though, even the man himself cannot be any more specific.

Over the next three weeks Munster take to the road for as daunting a three-match stretch as they could possibly imagine. This Saturday’s visit to their old foes the Ospreys in Swansea is followed by the annual Aviva Stadium set-to with their biggest foes of all, Leinster, after which Racing Metro host them in the Parisians’ marquee fixture at Stade de France.

It’s as if Munster are being presented as red rags to launch their hosts’ seasons on three successive weekends, but though bored silly with weights and running, yesterday O’Connell didn’t even hold out much hope of making the third of them.

“I’d love to play in Paris (but) it would probably be too soon in terms of match fitness. If I get back sooner rather than later perhaps; I’ve been avoiding putting dates on it. It’s been so frustrating. I’m just going week to week.”

It seems incredible to think that O’Connell was still being pencilled in for the New Zealand tour after aggravating the knee injury which curtailed his involvement in the Six Nations when Munster hosted Ulster in the Pro12 last May. He hasn’t played since, the net effect being that he has played only three games since March.

He’s had a full week’s training and will begin contact work with the Ireland squad today. “My knee delayed me a long time. I tweaked my back which set me back a week or two. My knee is pretty much A1 and I’ve just been waiting on that spasm with the back.”

Protracted recoveries are becoming annoyingly familiar for the 32-year-old after he was sidelined for nine months in 2010 with a groin injury that became infected. Hence, he has started only 33 games in over two and a half years, 19 of them for Munster

His frustration was all the more acute because Munster have a new head coach at the helm in Rob Penney, he admitted. “But I’m not worried about anything structurally in terms of my future career.”

Along with Jonathan Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, O’Connell was one of three heavy-hitters rolled out from the Irish squad’s two-day training camp in Carton House yesterday to help promote ticket sales for the forthcoming November Tests against South Africa and Argentina, which went on sale to the public yesterday. The IRFU have not yet been able to collate whether less or more than 10,000 are in the process of being returned by the clubs and provinces.

Tickets began at €20 and €30 for the Argentina and South Africa games, rising to €55 and €65, with parent and child packages beginning at €30 and €45.

O’Connell, along with Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe, attended the Ireland squad’s review of the New Zealand tour at the Aviva Stadium on the afternoon of August 24th, partially in an attempt to find some sort of closure on the record 60-0 defeat in the third Test.

Watching that horror show unfold, O’Connell felt bad, and it made him wonder could he have pushed himself to travel. “The teams I’ve been involved in, a lot of good things have come from defeat and disappointing results. A lot comes out of that and it certainly did when we met a month ago.

“We addressed a few issues in terms of slow starts, our standards in training. A lot of issues we’re aware of but until you actually talk about them and put a few bits and pieces down on paper, only then you have something to strive towards. And that’s what we’ve done.”

“There was a hell of a lot of stuff that we spoke about,” admitted Sexton. “There was some hard truths, it was probably a tough meeting to go through. We watched a lot of the last Test. We have to take a bit of responsibility for that and there has to be some type of – not backlash – but there has to be some type of response.”

“We spoke about that Ireland has to be our number one and it has to be a step up from when we come back from the provinces. It hasn’t been for the want of trying,” added Sexton, who spoke of the apparent single-minded focus of the 2009 Grand Slammers.

That 2009 triumph, of course, followed a cathartic, no-holds-barred get-together in Enfield after a taut November series. “If you look at the ’09 team there’s not too many survivors out of that starting team,” observed Sexton, “so I suppose there has been that little bit of transition and now it’s time for guys who’ve been there and maybe it’s their second or third season, that we start taking a bit of ownership of the team and take more decisions out there on the pitch. Maybe that’s where it’s been lacking.”

Clearly, the value of the green jersey was re-affirmed. O’Driscoll, who says he feels as well as ever physically after a niggle-free pre-season and will not consider his future beyond this season until the New Year, admitted: “Maybe we were guilty of taking for granted representing our country and you should never do that.

“It was important that we understand the pride of wearing the jersey and the respect we have to show it every time we put it on.”

“Sometimes you’re not given too much of a chance, other than holidays, to take stock of how great it is to play for your country. There is only one thing better than playing for your country and that’s winning for your country. We just have to try and remember what that’s like and make that feeling happen more often than not.”

Gordon D’Arcy (bruised ribs), Ronan O’Gara (dead leg), Simon Zebo (ankle), Eoin Reddan (leg), Declan Fitzpatrick (knee) and Mike McCarthy (calf) were unable to train with the Irish squad yesterday, and so the uncapped quartet of James Downey, Ian Madigan, Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall were called in, as were Ronan Loughney and Devin Toner.

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