Munster survive late drama in what could be fitting farewell to Paul O'Connell
MUNSTER 21 OSPREYS 18
PAUL O’CONNELL led the lap of honour in celebration of what is likely to have been his last appearance as a Munster player in Thomond Park to cap a day of thorough drama in Limerick.
Seconds earlier, the legendary second-row had been headed for his own posts after Ospreys centre Josh Matavesi appeared to have given his side a place in the Guinness Pro12 final after a rollercoaster second-half.
However, Nigel Owens wanted a second look and Limerick breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted a Rhys Webb knock-on in the build-up.
The man who breathed the loudest would have been Ian Keatley who missed three conversions and two penalties and on whose shoulders the blame would have rested. JJ Hanrahan had a chance from the tee too when he came on for the beleaguered fly-half, but he missed his effort.
Anthony Foley has much work to do ahead of their meeting with Glasgow Warriors at Kingspan Stadium next Saturday.
Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo all left the field early, his fly-half has the yips and their fast and loose gameplan kept Ospreys in it to the end.
The Welsh region started like a train and caused the hosts all sorts of issues in the opening moments.
Dan Biggar sent an early drop-goal attempt wide, before failing to find Scott Baldwin with the final pass when the hooker was in.
Munster were on the racks and winger Eli Walker looked to be in when he slipped Felix Jones’ tackle, only for Murray and CJ Stander to halt the flying winger before he could reach the line and O’Connell got to the ruck first and eased the pressure by forcing a penalty.
That allowed the Reds some breathing space and they looked to play their way into the game, with Stephen Archer almost an unlikely try scorer as he charged through the defensive line - only to be bundled into touch by a clutter of Ospreys defenders.
The tighthead prop was on the wrong end of Nigel Owens’ whistle minutes later as he failed to roll away at a ruck, allowing Biggar open the scoring, but Ian Keatley levelled within minutes as Josh Matavesi got himself on the wrong side at the breakdown.
That occurred as Murray received lengthy treatment for the knee injury that would force him off, a worrying sight for both province and country.
On came Duncan Williams and Munster didn’t let up. They forced a scrum penalty that allowed Keatley find touch and, when the men in black hauled down the advancing maul, the out-half put his side in front.
What had been a pulsating clash began to look ragged as the heavy hits took their toll and the match began to descend into a series of poor kicks with both fly-halves guilty of letting the other side off the hook.
Keatley missed a kickable penalty, but the costliest error came from Ospreys full-back Dan Evans who kicked the ball dead as the clock ticked towards half-time.
From a lengthy scrum on half-way, the outstanding Stander popped to Williams who fed Keatley. The Dubliner drew his man and popped the ball back inside to Stander who raced clear and found Paddy Butler and he committed Evans just enough to put Zebo over.
Keatley skewed the conversion badly, but the try had given the hosts a decent 11-3 advantage as Owens signalled the interval.
Another Ospreys error allowed the hosts extend that lead as Rhys Webb kicked the ball into touch on the full from just outside his ‘22.
Munster’s initial maul couldn’t make the yards they hoped for, but the forwards weren’t discouraged and a series of carries from the big men, with Stander prominent and Archer effective, got them close enough to the line for Keatley to spread it to Denis Hurley who ran over Walker and score.
Keatley’s bad run with the boot continued as he sent the touchline conversion wide, but already the visitors had a mountain to climb.
They could draw comfort from the sight of Munster captain O’Mahony heading off after two minutes of the second-half, but a 13 point lead is a hard mountain to climb when you’re the away team at Thomond.
If you’re going to do it, you’ll need a helping hand and they got it when Williams and Stander attempted the ambitious when the functional would have done.
From a scrum on the edge of their ‘22, the scrum-half peeled in-field and Stander went the other way. He attempted to find Zebo on the left wing, but Webb was watching all the way and intercepted to coast home.
The kicking malaise continued as Biggar sent his conversion wide and then another loose kick from the kick-off was returned with interest by Stander, before Keatley and Dave Kilcoyne did well and Butler powered over.
Keatley again missed the conversion and any comfort Munster drew from that score was gone in seconds as Jeff Hassler collected Zebo’s needless chip and, with Owens running a curious blocking line on Williams, the American winger raced under the posts.
Biggar couldn’t miss this conversion, so it was back to six points after a helter-skelter period that must have had Anthony Foley in conniptions.
With Murray and O’Mahony gone, Munster’s leadership corps was sorely lacking and the Ospreys scented blood.
The hosts were living on the edge, with the Welsh side butchering a four-man overlap before Williams’ fingertips prevented Josh Matavesi putting Hassler over.
Munster escaped and had the chance to spend some time in opposition territory, but they insisted on keeping the foot on the accelerator instead of coming up for air and, when they conceded possession, Ospreys went down the field and when Zebo held on on the deck, Owens gave Biggar a chance to close the lead to three points.
The incident left the winger prone on the deck and, although thankfully he eventually got to his feet, he had to leave the field and Foley had to cope without another of his internationals as his side looked to hold out with 13 minutes on the clock.
They were living on their nerves despite some brilliant Stander play, but a clever Williams kick gave them field position and, although Ospreys won their own lineout, BJ Botha forced a penalty on the deck to give Keatley a chance to restore the lead but his difficult afternoon continued and he sent the kick wide.
That was his day done as JJ Hanrahan came on and Botha handed him a chance from dead in front when forcing Marc Thomas to drive crooked, but the yips was catching and he sent it right.
Munster kept playing and Ronan O’Mahony’s chip in behind kept Ospreys deep in their half.
Again, from the lineout, the Munster defensive ruck kicked in and Billy Holland forced a penalty.
This time, O’Connell sensibly opted for touch and the hosts looked to kill the game once and for all.
The game didn’t want to die, however, and a penalty for holding on allowed them one last shot at salvaging something.
They thought they had as their replacement loosehead prop Thomas raced clear and was only just stopped by Jones, before the Welsh region went wide where Josh Matavesi touched down.
They erupted, but Owens went back to look at a suspected knock on. The replay showed Webb had fumbled and, to the 16,158 in the crowd’s relief, the try wouldnt stand.
A remarkable finish, Munster are still alive.
MUNSTER - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony 67); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 74), C Murray (D Williams 17); D Kilcoyne (J Ryan 72), E Guinazu (D Casey 72), S Archer (BJ