Paul O’Connell’s possible swansong is reason enough to inspire Munster
Ospreys will arrive without fear but grizzled home side have the tools to subdue them
Munster will again look to get to grips with Ospreys’ Rhys Webb, who has been one of the form half-backs of the PRO12 season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Two long-standing Irish-Welsh rivals, and two organisations desperately hungry for some silverware. The three-time champions against the four-time champions. Thomond Park awaits, for what could also, conceivably, be the iconic Paul O’Connell’s last ever appearance at the iconic venue.
Indeed, speaking to his former team-mate Marcus Horan for TG4’s Rugbaí Beo, to be aired before today’s kick-off, O’Connell said: “If I had to retire in the morning, it wouldn’t bother me.” Coupled with some musings about stepping into coaching, albeit after also stepping away from Munster for a while, his comments constituted the strongest hint yet that he could retire from the game after the World Cup or end his career in Toulon.
O’Connell will leave one hell of a void sooner or later, but his huge presence for possibly one last time is a major bonus for Munster given his outstanding form this season suggests he could easily carry on playing a while longer yet. As ever you could throw a blanket over the Munster pack in recent weeks as their set-pieces and their maul have become their most potent weapon.
Indeed in recovering impressively from their wounding European Champions Cup exit in January, Munster have reverted more to type under Anthony Foley and are playing a more mixed brand of rugby than when losing in the semi-finals last season. One defeat in 10 games since their European exit, culminating in a five-game unbeaten run, is proof of that.
The potency of their maul has also earned them the right to go wide, where Keith Earls and the fit-again Simon Zebo are in potent form, while their midfield – where Andrew Smith is quietly and consistently effective – is settled and effective. In a further boost, Peter O’Mahony also returns, as do David Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer, with Donnacha Ryan reverting to the secondrow.
Yet the Ospreys have always had the kind of strengths which troubles the Irish provinces and at face value this hasn’t changed.
First and foremost, they defend the maul very well and, having done their homework, they’ll know that if they can stymie the Munster maul, the home side could be seriously neutered.
The Ospreys also push up hard and defend aggressively, while their Lions trio of Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric tackle all day, with Lydiate the master of the chop tackle and Tipuric quick over the ball. They contest the breakdown furiously, and they have the form half-backs in the league this season in the uber-dangerous Rhys Webb and that regular thorn in Irish sides, Dan Biggar.
Welcome Normally you would welcome Nigel Owens’ appointment to any match, although putting the Welshman in charge of this game puts him in a difficult and something of a no-win situation. In fact, with
Leighton Hodges and Ian Davies on the touchlines, there is an all-Welsh team of officials on duty.
But Owens is an excellent referee who lets players play. The high quality of games between the heavyweights in recent weeks has reflected well on the league, and this finely balanced tie should maintain a high standard.
All in all, if any visiting team is equipped to win away in the semi-finals here, it is the Ospreys. They may have been one of the 10 away semi-finalist losers at Thomond Park in 2011 before thrashing Munster a year later, but they’ve also won two finals in the RDS and have lost only once in their last four visits to Limerick. It holds no fears for them.
Yet those Ospreys teams were perhaps more experienced. By contrast, this is a grizzled and gnarled Munster unit.
With an average age of 28, their youngest player is Paddy Butler at 24, and he has played 62 times for the province. As well as having 11 internationals in their starting team, a dozen of them have played at least 100 first-class games. They have over 1,300 Munster caps between them, and over 1,808 first-class games, at an average of 120-plus per player.
Experience tends to count in big cup games, primarily because they can be decided by mistakes or at any rate a team making the right decisions at the right moments. And, especially bearing in mind yer man in the secondrow, Munster aren’t exactly lacking in that department.