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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 5 June, 2020

O'Connell powerless to prevent Munster career ending in defeat

The 35-year-old lock signed off with a Pro12 loss in his last game for Munster.

Murray Kinsella reports from Kingspan Stadium

IF THIS WAS supposed to be about Paul O’Connell saying farewell, then somebody forgot to tell Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow Warriors.

Though the 35-year-old had big moments in the Pro12 final at Kingspan Stadium, he was a passenger to the Scots’ attack for large parts of the game, in the first half especially.

Paul O'Connell Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The low-key build-up from Munster signalled that O’Connell was not interested in being a distraction to his teammates. He wasn’t available for interview all week, while Anthony Foley largely skirted any questions about the great man’s farewell.

O’Connell didn’t really get his way, however, as the rest of us continued to talk about what he’s given to Munster, what they’ll miss next season and what the future holds for the Ireland captain.

It was tempting to put real weight behind the second row’s every action pre-match, as he bounded onto the pitch for the warm-up, went through an additional burst of carries with scrum coach Jerry Flannery and led the mauling practice with aggression.

Back into the changing rooms and we might never know what, if anything, was said in the bowels of the Belfast venue. He’s moved men to tears before apparently, but you sense that he left this one to stand-in captain Denis Hurley. It’s not about me.

The pinch of the grass as he arrived back on-field, the blessing of himself as has become custom and you might have said to yourself, ‘God bless Glasgow against this force of manic aggression’.

First lineout, O’Connell calls towards the tail and drags Glasgow’s pod to the front on a convincing decoy run. Selfless, this is not about me.

But thereafter, O’Connell and his teammates barely had a moment to come up for breath. The lock was left hanging onto the coat-tails Rob Harley as the flanker scored after the sizzlingly on-song Fijian second row Leone Nakarawa redefined modern second row play.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell's head pops out of a defensive maul. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Connell chased from ruck to ruck, desperate for the glimpse of daylight that might allow him into that characteristic position clamped down over the ball, but Glasgow’s speed of ruck bordered on the obscene.

Munster finally came to after conceding three first-half tries and then it was the unlikely playmaker Duncan Williams whose sniping break grabbed momentum for them. Who was on his right shoulder to take an offload and continue forward towards the Glasgow tryline? The bald-headed one.

Andrew Smith demonstrated that he was just as keen as O’Connell to exit with a genuine bang as he smashed his way over from 10 metres out, just one moment of an excellent midfield performance with ball in hand.

Momentum on their side, O’Connell emerged from the break as buoyed as the rest of the Munster team. You can bet that he was one of the key decision makers insisting that the southerners needed to turn to their mauling strength.

Up fired that fearsome attacking weapon, allowing O’Connell to eventually burst onto a Williams inside pass meant for Simon Zebo. He powered up to and over the Glasgow tryline, but the most fitting of tries was denied by some brilliant covering tackles to hold him up.

A superb lineout steal of Dougie Hall’s throw came soon after, O’Connell demonstrating that he is still an explosive athlete to leap in front of Jonny Gray and pick off the ball.

Next, he was haring downfield after Zebo’s hack-forward of a spilled Glasgow possession. The left wing smothered Tommy Seymour and then O’Connell produced a textbook low tackle on Finn Russell, driving him into touch as the daring out-half attempted to counter.

Paul O'Connell with Jonny Gray and Leone Nakarawa O'Connell is halted by second row opponents Leone Nakarawa and Jonny Gray. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Another attacking Munster lineout, but much like their general performance, the maul stuttered. They lacked the killer blow in a position from which they could have mentally rattled the Glaswegians; that’s what might hurt O’Connell tonight.

Oddly enough, O’Connell only gathered in one attacking lineout for Munster in this league final, whereas he is usually such a busy presence at the set-piece.

His ball carrying never managed to have a telling impact, although his rucking was as effective as it always is. Ultimately, a glance over his stats and total involvements might tell a tale of a man around whom the game flowed but one who never was allowed to grab it by the collar.

It was a low-key build up for O’Connell, and in the end his insistence that the game wasn’t about him rang true.

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Murray Kinsella

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