It was not quite the heroic performance that led Munster to a famous Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Harlequins three weekends earlier but the veteran lock, who it emerged, had been carrying a groin injury since Monday and had not trained for the rest of the week leading to this semi-final clash with ASM Clermont Auvergne, still made his presence felt in a gripping battle with the European favourites.
The injury, it turns out, even helped to distract the former captain from the ongoing furore being whipped up in media outlets in France and closer to home surrounding his accidental kick to Dave Kearney’s head in the derby with Leinster a fortnight ago, an accident which escaped a citing, much to the annoyance of Clermont’s passionate supporters who booed the Irish totem loudly when his face appeared on the stadium’s giant screen as the team’s were announced.
“The coverage of the incident against Leinster wasn’t ideal but I’d like to think it didn’t affect my preparation,” O’Connell said. “The injury obviously did, I didn’t get to train with the boys as much as I would have liked all week and that never helps and isn’t ideal. I put the incident aside early this week. I was frustrated and disappointed for Dave more than myself but I just put it aside and concentrated on the game.”
O’Connell’s post-match words were tinged by a frustration shared with his Munster team-mates at not advancing to the final, despite going into the game as rank outsiders.
“We had a genuine chance of winning it. We spent plenty enough time in their 22 and 10 metres from their line, particularly just before half-time and a good few times in the second-half.
“We started well with our maul and got our three points but then we let them impose themselves on us and we had to fight and battle for every little thing we got.
“The boys are disappointed we didn’t win it. We had our chances and we didn’t take them.”
As Lions head coach Warren Gatland looked on from the stands ahead of tomorrow’s squad announcement for the tour to Australia this summer, a panel O’Connell is sure to be named for, fellow veteran and fellow 2009 Lions lock Nathan Hines was watching his former touring team-mate up close as they went toe-to-toe in the fight for a final place. The pair embraced at the final whistle, and former Leinster forward Hines wished his adversary good luck for the Lions announcement, adding; “I said to him I thought he did a great job coming back from injury and that he did very well.”
As for the booing, Hines said: “I think Munster were enjoying all that pantomime villain stuff” and the villain himself agreed.
“I didn’t mind it,” O’Connell said, “probably enjoyed it a little bit to be honest with you. It’s part of the game.”