Despite the lack of a bonus point from the win over Connacht, the key bonus from the fixture was the return of Paul O’Connell for his first start of the season in the League after his back surgery on New Year’s day preceded by groin and knee injuries which had restricted his involvement to just two (Heineken Cup) starts in October. Watching him rise high into the air to secure the ball at lineout time, packing down with his long term lieutenant Donncha O’Callaghan in the second row of the scrum or charging upfield with ball in hand energised the supporters. He seemed fit and raring for action after his long lay-off, playing without any consideration for his health or concern about his back as he threw himself into the heart of the action, as we expect from our warrior and spiritual leader but we were probably afraid to hope for such intensity so soon after his return. Maybe all the stories about him putting “the fear of God” into his team and his opponents and the story that Superman wears Paul O’Connell PJs are true and he is more than a man! For sure he is some man for one man! It seemed appropriate that he scored the first try of the game, powering through two defenders after a lovely offload from Cathal O’Sheridan in the tenth minute of the game to rapturous applause. Paulie is back!
In addition to his own workrate, you could see his influence on the team. His leadership skills were in evidence throughout as he congratulated players on a good scrum or tackle, encouraging them to do more of the same and keeping up the pressure on Connacht. He also had a discussion with the referee Alain Roland when a penalty was awarded against the Munster scrum. Old habits die hard!
When the team was being announced before the game the crowd were pretty muted, maybe that is the norm for Musgrave Park, but when the announcer got to number 5 Paul O’Connell there was a great cheer. After playing 40 minutes for the A team and 80 for Young Munster the previous week it was great to see him back for the senior team. He was probably not expecting to play the full eighty but the unfortunate timing of an injury to Sean Dougall shortly after his fellow back row Tommy O’Donnell had been substituted meant that Billy Holland had to come on for Sean and Paul played on. As this photo captures, he was still going strong in the 72nd minute, trying to secure the bonus point as Munster laid siege to the Connacht line but could not get over it. He will probably feel it this week but it was great that he got through it as training does not simulate match playing conditions as he had said in his interview after the A game last week. See link to that interview in last weeks blog if you missed it.
The other highlights of the game for me included:
- Cathal Sheridan on just his second start for the senior team, who brought a lot of variety to his passing and kept the defence guessing.
- The game plan – Munster mixed things up more, using mauls, cross field kicks and direct running up the centre instead of overly relying on the side to side play we had seen used a lot recently.
- The reliable lineout as Varley continued to find his target and scored two tries! The first arose just a few minutes after Paul’s try, after Connacht lock Kearney was sin-binned for taking out Ronan O’Gara. From the resultant lineout the pack mauled their way over the line. The second was scored early in the second half and with 30 minutes left to play there was great expectations that the fourth try bonus point would be secured but there was no further score for either side.
- Varley formed a strong scrummaging front row with Kilcoyne and Archer, both back after their appearances off the bench for Ireland in Rome.
- Kilcoyne made several of his trademark ball carrying runs as did Tommy O’Donnell and the backs got in on the action also with Jones, Hurley, Downey and Laulala enjoyed playing in dry conditions and taking on the defense.
- Felix Jones and Denis Hurley combined well to save a try when Marmion took a quick tap for a penalty and ran nearly the length of the pitch, only to be caught by Felix while Denis Hurley tackled Henshaw just as he collected the offload from Marmion.
- Niall Ronan made his first appearance of 2013 after a bad injury at the November game in Cork
- Ivan Dineen (on for the last quarter after being added to the Heineken Cup squad during the week) also made some inroads against the Connacht defence.
- It was also the first dry game at Musgrave Park this season, albeit it was bitingly cold in a strong wind.
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O’Gara, C Sheridan; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; T O’Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: M Sherry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, B Holland, N Ronan, D Williams, I Keatley, I Dineen.
Connacht: R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, G Duffy (capt); D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Kearney, G Naoupu; A Browne, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Replacements: A Flavin, D Buckley, R Loughney, M McCarthy, E McKeon, P O’Donohoe, M Nikora, F Vainikolo.
Thanks to Daryl Feehely for the use of his photos again, much better than anything I could capture with my phone! You can check out his full collection at http://dfeehely.blogspot.com
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