Munster 21 Ospreys 18: Paul O’Connell has spent the last few months, in public at least, ruminating over the right way to retire from professional sport and has been at pains to point out that not every athlete is fortunate to bow out from their sport in the manner of their choosing.
Saturday’s exit from Thomond Park, then, will have been as good as the 35-year-old could have hoped for from a last hurrah at his hometown stadium and on a pitch he has graced for 14 seasons.
The hug he gave fellow second row Donnacha Ryan after Nigel Owens first disallowed what would have been a match-winning Ospreys try and then blew the full-time whistle on a remarkable, pulsating Guinness Pro12 semi-final suggested this narrow victory was as meaningful as any that had preceded it during his time at this famous stadium.
There is still no announcement from the Ireland captain about his future beyond this autumn’s World Cup in England but that embrace, the lap of honour in front of his adoring public, and the ramrod straight salute he delivered to all four corners of the ground said more than any official statement.
“I said before that the summer would be the time when I would make a decision. It probably is the last time I play for Munster here,” O’Connell told Sky Sports after he had once again given his all for his province in a helter-skelter game that secured a place against Glasgow in Saturday’s Pro12 final at Ravenhill, Belfast, one last hurrah for the double Heineken Cup winner.
And what a send-off that would be if he transitioned into his final chapter in green with some silverware in red.
You do not need to be Jagger and Richards to know you can’t always get what you want and O’Connell has seen varying degrees of comfort elicited from those in his orbit who have recently made the same kind of decisions. He witnessed Brian O’Driscoll’s change of heart about retirement at the end of 2012-13 but then engineer the perfect finale with a Six Nations title in Paris in March 2014. And then saw the turmoil triggered in his friend, the jockey AP McCoy, once he had signposted his exit from the National Hunt scene from some distance out.
So one can imagine he will be grateful his last throw of the dice at Thomond Park was a winning one, however close-run it proved.
Munster had played fast and loose with the concept of game management for much of the afternoon in a pulsating contest between two in-form sides, as Ospreys, prompted by their outstanding half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and territory.
Yet the Munster pack yet again proved to be the unsinkable force as all around them being tossed about in the maelstrom. They had disrupted a formidable Ospreys lineout led by O’Connell’s fellow Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones and it was a scrum on halfway just before half-time that gave the home side the platform for the try that gave them an 11-3 interval lead against the run of play.
Man of the match CJ Stander peeled off the back to feed scrum-half Duncan Williams, on after 16 minutes owing to a worrying knee injury for Conor Murray. Williams passed to Ian Keatley who moved it onto Stander, the No.8 charging through midfield before passing to the equally excellent Paddy Butler on his left, the flanker drawing the final defender before the killer pass to Simon Zebo to score in the corner.
Soon after half-time a well-finished Denis Hurley try had Ospreys facing an uphill battle at 16-3 down but two missed conversions from Keatley gave them hope and when the otherwise magnificent Stander sent a pre-ordained pass out on the blindside from the base of the scrum to Zebo, Webb read it perfectly to score a try.
Butler and Ospreys wing Jeff Hassler exchanged tries in quick succession but crucially Keatley missed his third conversion of the match and two further penalties as Biggar scored his conversion and then added a penalty, bringing the scores to 21-18.
The hook came in for Keatley but replacement JJ Hanrahan fared no better off the tee in his final home game and his missed 73rd minute penalty set up a nervous ending for Munster.
And when Ospreys’ sub prop Mark Thomas powered through their defences to set up a Josh Matevesi try in the final minute it was a moment that would have spelled disaster, not least for O’Connell. Instead, referee Nigel Owens went to his TMO and a knock-on was spotted. Full-time soon followed and the Munster warhorse will get one last charge.
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 66); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 73), C Murray (D Williams, 16); D Kilcoyne (J Ryan, 71), E Guinazu (D Casey, 71), S Archer (BJ Botha, 51); D Ryan, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, capt (B Holland, 43), P Butler, CJ Stander.
Replacement not used: J O’Donoghue.
OSPREYS: D Evans; J Hassler, B John, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith (M Thomas, 73), S Baldwin (S Parry, 54), D Arhip (A Jarvis, 57); T Ardron (R Thornton, 65), A W Jones - captain; D Lydiate (J King, h-t), J Tipuric, D Baker.
Replacements not used: T Habberfield, S Davies, J Spratt.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
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