Saturday 18 January 2020

Toulon-bound O'Connell must rise to occasion to sign off with one trophy

Paul O’Connell in training ahead of what is likely to be his final game for Munster
Paul O’Connell in training ahead of what is likely to be his final game for Munster
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This evening in Belfast, Paul O'Connell brings the curtain down on a glorious chapter in Munster's history. Unfortunately, he'll do so without two crucial members of his supporting cast.

Yesterday's news that captain Peter O'Mahony had failed a fitness test and would have to join Conor Murray in the stands for this Guinness Pro12 final dealt a significant blow to Anthony Foley's team's chances of beating Glasgow Warriors.

With O'Connell now expected to announce his post-World Cup move to Toulon on a two-year contract worth €1.2m next week, this is his final shot at silverware for his beloved home province.

With two of his Ireland colleagues absent, the onus is on him to drive the team forward.

O'Mahony's absence forces Foley into a reshuffle, with Donnacha Ryan shifting on to the blindside flank and Billy Holland coming into the pitch. Sean Dougall is promoted to the bench.

Simon Zebo has recovered from his concussion to take his place on the left wing with Duncan Williams replacing Murray at scrum-half.

There are shades of Allianz Park about the build-up.

Back in January Munster went to the home of Saracens without their first-choice No 9 and needing a win, Williams endured a nightmare afternoon and the Reds' European ambitions were left in the dust.

He wasn't the only one to play poorly that afternoon, but Murray is one of his team's world-class operators, a decision-maker and leader who will be missed in every facet of the game. His absence was always going to weaken Foley's hand, but the additional loss of O'Mahony could prove fatal.

The skipper's ability to drive his side forward and bloody-minded physicality will be missed against a Warriors team primed to win their first trophy as a professional outfit.

Perhaps seeing a need for experience, Foley has recalled BJ Botha for his 100th Munter cap and the hope is the South African will squeeze the Scots at scrum-time.

Glasgow edged past Munster at the semi-final stage last year before being blown away by Leinster at the RDS in the final. They're determined not to make the same mistakes.

"What I have seen from this group is that they have learned from previous experiences," coach Gregor Townsend said.

"The way they came back at the weekend showed they can take a bit of adversity and challenge, yet still work out a way to win.

"We've gone away and won in France this year, from missing out the year before. So I have seen people in this group in similar situations, figuring out a way to win. That will be the way to go on Saturday."

Foley is wary of this Warriors team who finished top of the table and left it late to overcome Ulster last weekend.

"You have to understand they won't kick you the ball like very other team," he explained.

"They are the lowest kicking team in the competition, the highest offloading, they will go from anywhere, they have the most tries in the competition scored from their own half so we need to be on alert in every aspect of the game.

"They have (Niko) Matawalu, he'll go from anywhere, Leone Nakarawa will try it from everywhere, Stuart Hogg will go from everywhere. It's well marshalled by Finn Russell and Peter Horne in the centre, so we've a lot to look at.

"When they came back at us over there in the second half they came back at us through Josh Strauss, Jonny Gray and Al Kellock, big ball-carriers.

"They have good back-rowers and will live in our breakdown, they will get their feet in, they will cause us hassle.

"How we manage that is we try and impose our pace of the game on top of them. You need to do that through a quality set-piece, good tactical kicking game, try and upset their set-piece and try and take them on physically.

"When you look at it and you draw it up and you think about what the two sides have it's going to be hopefully the conditions up in Kingspan will be decent because if it is it will be a very high-octane game."

Whether Munster have the team to keep up remains to be seen.

Their tight five is strong, but the loss of Murray, O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell has weakened the back-row and half-backs at a time when Ian Keatley needs a good start to put last week's kicking woes to bed.

So, for one last time it comes down to the big man in the second-row to drag a performance out of his home province.

Whatever about others wanting to 'win it for Paulie', they'll need O'Connell to be at his best for the 80 minutes he has left in red, carrying hard and rallying the troops.

Stand-in captain Denis Hurley will need the Ireland skipper's assistance when it comes to the big decisions.

He deserves to go out on a high, but Glasgow will have other ideas and they're good enough to spoil the swansong.

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors

MUNSTER - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley (capt), S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, E Guinazu, BJ Botha; B Holland, P O'Connell; D Ryan, P Butler, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, J Cronin, S Archer, S Dougall, J O'Donoghue, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony.

GLASGOW WARRIORS - S Hogg; T Seymour, R Vernon, P Horne, DTH van der Merwe; F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid, D Hall, R de Klerk; L Nakarawa, J Gray; R Harley, R Wilson, J Strauss (capt). Reps: F Brown, J Yanuyanutawa, J Welsh, A Kellock, C Fusaro, N Matawalu, D Weir, S Lamont.

REF - N Owens (Wales)

Munster v Glasgow Warriors, Live, TG4/Sky Sports 3, 6.30

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