The final itself between table-topping Glasgow Warriors and Munster takes on even further relevance for the Irish side as it now appears certain that Paul O’Connell will don his beloved No 5 Munster shirt for the 174th and final time. Even the most partisan Ulster supporters who had already bought their tickets in anticipation of the province making the decider should be moved to row in behind the iconic Munster second row.
O’Connell’s salute to the crowd after this epic contest appeared to carry more that just the traditional salute to fans after a season of dedicated support but more of a thanks for the memories.
When O’Connell all but confirmed that this was likely to be his last ever appearance at Thomond Park, next Saturday’s clash took on even more significance for the former Lions captain who has been immense all season. At this moment you wonder what price Munster paid for this success as key figures in Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and captain Peter O’Mahony were all forced off with injuries that must put a serious doubt over their participation next weekend.
Not that Glasgow are also without challenges on that front as they too lost a talismanic figure in their long term captain Ali Kellock after only 20 minutes of their semi-final against Ulster on Friday night to a suspected concussion. At this stage of the season it has almost become a case of last man standing.
Last season’s beaten finalists, Glasgow continue on their upward progression and continue to take incremental steps in the right direction. After that agonising defeat to Leinster at the RDS, their response under the impressive Gregor Townsend has been emphatic and resulted in them topping the Pro 12 table for the first time in their history.
The challenge now is to finally deliver silverware for the first time in the professional era for a Scottish club side after Edinburgh failed at the final hurdle when losing out to Gloucester in the European Challenge Cup decider a few weeks ago.
Once again the hoodoo that hangs over the away side was in evidence with Ulster and Ospreys unable to snap a sequence of Pro 12 home semi-final winners that now extends to twelve contests.
One ventures to suggest that the last thing the tournament organisers would have wanted in what has proved the most captivating Celtic/Pro 12 tournament since inception was an Irish-based decider hosting teams from Scotland and Wales. That that scenario was avoided by a contentious if correct decision by Nigel Owens at the death in Limerick will have made that sense of relief even more palpable.
When Ospreys’ talented Fijian centre Josh Matavesi dotted down for what appeared a match-winning try at the death to snatch victory from Munster’s grasp, a sense of injustice prevailed around the stadium as it appeared that there was a clear knock on in the build up to the score.
In fairness to Owens he immediately looked to the assistant referee for guidance after the crowd reacted to what they saw as a blatant knock-on in the transfer of possession to Rhys Webb but there was none forthcoming. He had no hesitation in referring the incident to the TMO. The problem is the official can only go back two phases to adjudicate on such matters.
Luckily for Munster it only took the Ospreys two phases to score after the knock-on and that cost them a place in the final. One more phase in the build-up to the Matavesi score and the officials would have had a very difficult call to make. Fine margins indeed!
Relief must also have been the overriding factor in the Munster dressing room as they somehow conspired to invite a brave Ospreys side back into the game after looking dead and buried minutes into the second half when an excellent try from Denis Hurley propelled the hosts into a commanding 16-3 lead.
From a position of strength, however, Munster opened the door for an unlikely Ospreys comeback by handing Pro 12 player of the year Webb the simplest of tries when intercepting a telegraphed pass from CJ Stander.
Ian Keatley also had a horrible day with the boot, only converting two of his seven kicks at goal, granting the visitors a stay of execution that they almost capitalised on in the game’s closing sequence. Munster may have been the better team throughout but failed to nail that superiority where it matters most - on the scoreboard.
Then again with just one defeat in their last four visits to Thomond Park this young Ospreys side differ from most in that they harbour no inhibitions when travelling to Limerick, a point tellingly made from the outset when they dominated all the early exchanges. Their ability to play out of the tackle has been a feature all season as Munster’s defensive capabilities were tested to the full.
As always, except perhaps when facing the nouveau riche in Europe, Munster’s set piece proved the decisive point of difference with props Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer both having big games.
Archer’s work-rate and carrying in the loose contributed handsomely to the hosts’ first-half dominance, while the departing Paddy Butler enjoyed one of his most distinguished outings in a Munster jersey. Like his fellow Rockwell man JJ Hanrahan, it is very disappointing to see such home-grown talent depart as he seeks to develop his career with a move to France next season. On the basis of this performance, he will be missed.
Everything now comes down to a face off between the two most consistent sides in the league as Glasgow seek to make up for last season’s disappointment of falling at the final hurdle. Munster will be further motivated by a desire to deliver silverware for O’Connell. If any Munster player deserves to depart with a bang, it’s the totemic Young Munster man.