Munster have received a welcome pre-season boost with the news that Paul O’Connell is now ‘injury free’ and relishing his return to action with the province.
It may be a few weeks away from Paul O’Connell’s 13th league season with Munster, but the lynchpin lock’s appetite for rugby shows no sign of abating.
Undoubtedly energised by the Lions series win and his recent wedding to long-term girlfriend Emily, he seems as keen as ever to pull on the red jersey and spearhead their challenge for silverware.
Thankfully the broken arm he suffered in the Lions’ first Test victory over Australia is now healed. The expectation is that O’Connell, who admittedly has some ‘catching up to do’ fitness wise, will be back playing by round 3 or 4 of the RaboDirect PRO12.
“From a fitness point of view I’d say I’m unfit. From an injury point of view I’m injury-free. I was back running today (Tuesday), back doing a little bit of weights on the arm today. So all that is going well,” said the Limerick man.
“I’ve had a few weeks off since the Lions tour with my arm and stuff, so I have a little bit of catching up to do on some of the (Munster) guys.
“A lot of them have had a really long pre-season, an eight week pre-season, which is incredible. It’s amazing to come in and see the benefits that guys get from training full-time for five days in-a-row, then getting two days off for the bodies to recover. I’ve a bit of catching up to do on the fitness side of things alright.”
Young back rower Peter O’Mahony has been installed as Munster’s new captain, a move that O’Connell has warmly welcomed, and there is also much interest and intrigue in who fills the talismanic boots of departed out-half Ronan O’Gara.
Young guns JJ Hanrahan and Johnny Holland will be pushing Ireland international Ian Keatley hard for the number 10 jersey, a selection battle which O’Connell feels Munster can only benefit from.
“It’s going to be very different going out there without Rog. I was only talking about it the other day to Peter (O’Mahony) in terms of captaincy. Very often Rog would be making a lot of the decisions for me,” he said of O’Gara, who has just started his coaching career with French club Racing Metro 92.
“When we got ahead in games, he was able to make the little tactical shift without ever having to be told or asked. He had this nose for knowing when it was time to do the simple things and putting a team into their own half and it’s going to be missed.
“But JJ and Ian, who have been there for the past few years, are fantastic rugby players, incredibly hungry, incredibly committed, really knowledgeable as well. They know how we want to play, what we need to do inside out.
“They’ve learned really well from Rog over the years and we also have Johnny Holland coming behind and he’s going to be a fantastic player as well.”
O’Connell added: “While it’s a big change to have Rog gone, it’s exciting times as well and I really think these guys are ready to step up.
“If we were in this situation a few years ago, I don’t know if you could say that but now I think it’s exciting, disappointing that Rog is going, but exciting also for what the three other out-halves are going to bring.”
The 33-year-old forward only played eight times for Munster last season, with a troublesome back injury keeping him out of action until October. He required surgery on it to get back in time for the Heineken Cup knockout stages and the summer’s Lions tour.
Staying fit and injury-free will be an obvious goal for O’Connell this term as well as helping Munster make the necessary improvements for them to challenge for league and European honours.
“We need to be more accurate and hang on to the ball more. We also need to be more effective when we’re in positions to score – (last year) we didn’t convert as much as we should or as much as good teams need to,” he explained.
“We also need to mix up our game more and improve our read of the flow of the game, even though the Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont was disappointing because I thought we had a great mixture in our attack.
“If you can put the ball wide and also take a team on up front and wear out their forwards, both tactics can work well.”