The significance of Paul O’Connell’s final game for Munster this evening is lost on no-one who has shared his remarkable career in red.
Stade Francais 14 Munster 16: Heineken Cup q-final, Stade Jean Bouin, April 2002.
Declan Kidney blooded Paul O’Connell off the replacements bench in the early stages of the 2001/’02 Heineken Cup before deciding he was ready to start alongside skipper Mick Galwey in the side to take on Stade Francais in the quarter-final.
A howling wind that blew down the middle of the pitch and favoured Munster in the first half. A fine try by Anthony Horgan and some typically accurate goal-kicking by Ronan O’Gara pushed Munster 16-3 in front at the break.
However, the three French points had come from the boot of the equally deadly Diego Dominguez and it was apparent that any indiscipline would play directly into the home side’s hands.
Kidney had taken the red-haired O’Connell aside in the build-up and warned him about conceding silly penalties. The 21 year-old gave one of the greatest displays of his illustrious career that day.
A combination of youthful exuberance and natural talent proved invaluable as Munster restricted Stade to a try by Christophe Juillet and a couple of penalties by Dominguez.
O’Connell went on to play in the semi-final victory over Castres and in the losing final against Leicester Tigers and his place in the side was never in doubt after that.
Munster 31 Sale Sharks 9: Heineken Cup, Thomond Park, January 2006.
The old Thomond Park was packed to the rafters for a game that Munster needed to win with a bonus point if they were to reach the quarter-finals. They duly succeeded in doing so thanks to a last minute David Wallace try.
Even today, however, that game is best remembered for an incident that occurred when the sides were still level with three points apiece.
Ronan O’Gara restarted the game after Charlie Hodgson’s equalising penalty for Sale, lofting his drop kick high into the dark Limerick sky and straight at the massively built Sebastian Chabal at number eight for the Sharks.
As he caught the ball, the thronged stadium went mad as he was tackled by Paul O’Connell in full flight and dramatically propelled yards backwards.
To his credit, Chabal stood his ground as well as any man could have done but O’Connell was joined by Donncha O’Callaghan, Anthony Foley and Denis Leamy who drove the Frenchman back to within a few yards of his own line.
He got the ball back but a clearly rattled Hodgson sliced his clearance into touch, Anthony Foley mauled his way over from the line-out and the Sharks were on their way to being devoured.
Munster 23 Biarritz 19: Heineken Cup final, Millennium Stadium, May 2006
Heineken Cup final defeats were becoming a little too familiar for Munster when they turned up in Cardiff for their third decider in seven years. They had lost in three semi-finals and while near misses were all very fine, Munster’s ambition stretched a lot further.
Disappointment looked to be once again their lot when Biarritz winger Sereli Bebo grabbed an early try even though he seemed to have a foot in touch. But Anthony Foley and his men refused to surrender.
Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan were again a massive force in the second-row and as the forwards gained the upper hand Peter Stringer slipped away for a try that will forever hold a special place in Munster hearts.
Trevor Halstead, the sturdy South African, got another and while there were several anxious moments, in the end it was Munster’s day with the red head of Paul O’Connell to be seen almost everywhere.
Munster 16 Toulouse 13: Heineken Cup final, Millennium Stadium, May 2008
Two years later, the captaincy had passed from Anthony Foley to Paul O’Connell when once again Munster defied all expectation in battling their way through to a fourth European Cup decider.
Once more, the Millennium Stadium was to prove a happy hunting ground as they took on Toulouse, the aristocrats of the French game in a nail-biting clash.
The experience of the Munster side gained in many a heroic battle was probably the difference between the teams; whereas Toulouse lost their captain Fabien Pelous to a yellow card when he reacted to a little piece of harmless provocation by Alan Quinlan, skipper O’Connell made sure that those around him kept their heads.
As always, he himself led by example, every member of his squad supported him magnificently and a Denis Leamy try and Ronan O’Gara’s boot did the rest.
Harlequins 12 Munster 18: Heineken Cup quarter-final, The Stoop, May 2013
Declan Kidney, the victorious coach in 2006 and ’08, had graduated to even greater things with Ireland, several leading players had either retired or moved on and Munster were no longer a major force in the European game when New Zealander Rob Penney assumed control in time for the 2012/’13 season. Rightly or wrongly, Penney believed that Munster needed to adopt a far more expansive approach if they were to return to the top of the European tree.
A few disappointing results meant that many of the members of the Red Army a felt otherwise. And when they arrived at The Stoop, the home of Harlequins, for a quarter-final clash, it certainly looked as if Paul O’Connell and other senior players along with forwards coach Anthony Foley felt that going back to basics represented their best chance of progress.
O’Connell produced one of his greatest ever performances in the red jersey and ensured that the Munster pack was able to strangle the ‘Quins eight and pave the way for Ronan O’Gara to land six match-winning penalties.
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