Monday 21 October 2019

Toulon beckons for the great Paul O'Connell but Munster have a job to do first

Munster 21-18 Ospreys

23 May 2015; Paul O'Connell, Munster, leaves the pitch after the game. Guinness PRO12 Play-Off, Munster v Ospreys. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
23 May 2015; Paul O'Connell, Munster, leaves the pitch after the game. Guinness PRO12 Play-Off, Munster v Ospreys. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Munster's Paddy Butler
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Hard to know who was more relieved at Thomond Park yesterday: Pro12 Rugby or Munster themselves. In a scarcely credible finish to a decidedly odd game, the home team did everything in their power to blow it - with six kicks at goal missed between Ian Keatley and the man who replaced him late in the proceedings, JJ Hanrahan - and then it took a reprieve from the TMO to get off the pitch with a ticket to next Saturday's final in Belfast.

The prospect of Scottish and Welsh sides slugging it out for the title would not be great for local trade. It remains to be seen how many Ulster supporters stand up for the Munstermen, but a whole heap of the 16,158 were on their feet in the minutes after the final whistle here to salute Paul O'Connell whose walkabout had all the hallmarks of a man saying goodbye. There was no microphone and no speech but afterwards he said: "Yes, it's probably the last time I played for Munster here."

Toulon beckons for Ireland's greatest ever second-row so long as he comes through the World Cup in the autumn with body and appetite in sync.

Just as well then that the game had a happy ending. Moments earlier Ospreys looked to have stolen it when a break into open country by prop Marc Thomas put the home team in desperate trouble. When the visitors retained the ball and shifted it to the opposite wing, Josh Matavesi had no problem stepping inside the cover to score.

Enter the TMO, and to great acclaim from the crowd the knock-on by Rhys Webb at the ruck which started the move showed up like a compound fracture on an X-ray. Ospreys captain Alun-Wyn Jones wasn't too happy about it, but referee Nigel Owens wasn't going back for seconds and that was that. And coach Steve Handy took it on the chin.

"Fine margins," he said. "I'm hugely proud of the way our boys came back and it was very disappointing at the end."

The comeback saw them recover from 21-8 down on 50 minutes to 21-18 on 80 with the decision to come on whether or not Matavesi's try would be allowed. A good individual score from Jeff Hassler, who recovered a grubber out of defence by Simon Zebo, got them back on track. Earlier in the half, when they were 16-3 down, Webb scored when a breakdown between CJ Stander and Zebo off the back of a scrum saw the Ospreys scrumhalf score with ease.

"You had two very good sides out there playing a good brand of rugby and for it to go to the wire like that it sums up how tight a competition it was," Anthony Foley said. "A good spectacle."

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The coach has a busy week ahead of him, and huge concerns over the fitness of Conor Murray (medial knee ligament), Simon Zebo (head) and Peter O'Mahony (hip flexor) ahead of the final with Glasgow.

The good news for Foley was the performance of two of the lesser lights: Stephen Archer and Paddy Butler, both of whom had fine games up front. The worrying thing - apart from the injuries - was the quality of the goal-kicking, with only two successes from eight attempts on goal. Moreover, the way they conceded those second-half tries to Webb and Hassler - very loose stuff within sight of their own goal - was not what you associate with Munster in a semi-final.

They were 11-3 up at the break thanks to a breakthrough just before the whistle. From a scrum in midfield, Keatley straightened up looking for Felix Jones with a pass that instead ended in the hands of CJ Stander.

The South African may be happiest in contact but this time he needed to shift it and he did just that. That just left Butler with the same decision - and happily for Munster and their fans he gave it quickly to Zebo for a handy finish. A good finish from Denis Hurley early in the second half seemed to set Munster up nicely but things went a bit haywire after that. We'll see what shape they are in come the weekend.

"We'll go at it hard with Glasgow on Saturday," Foley said. "I'll guarantee you one thing: the team who wins it his year will have earned it. It's going to be a tough, physical contest."

Scorers - Munster: S Zebo, P Butler, D Hurley try each; I Keatley 2 pens. Ospreys: J Hassler, R Webb try each; D Biggar 2 pens, con.

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 Botha 50), D Ryan, P O'Connell, P O'Mahony (capt, B Holland 45), CJ Stander, P Butler

Ospreys: D Evans (M Morgan 61); J Hassler, B John, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin (S Parry 55), D Arhip (A Jarvis 57), T Ardron (R Thornton 66), AW Jones, D Lydiate (J King h-t), D Baker, J Tipuric.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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