Patched-up Paul O'Connell's nervy wait for Lions Tour call
Clermont Auvergne 16 Munster 10: Munster colossus hopes watching Gatland saw enough despite semi-final cup defeat
There was no need to ask the conspicuous man in a red jacket and black flat cap whether Paul O'Connell remains a worthy choice to tour with the Lions this summer, or even to captain them for a second time. Michael O'Connell, father of the Munster and 2009 Lions skipper, stood and roared his encouragement in the Stade de la Mosson grandstand as the Irish province were elbowed out of the Heineken Cup semi-finals by Clermont Auvergne.
A few seats away, the 2013 Lions head coach Warren Gatland stoically maintained the inscrutability required of him in the last few days before tomorrow's squad announcement, refusing to rule the injury-prone O'Connell in or out, or to confirm the captaincy would pass this time to Wales's Sam Warburton. Some of these choices were surely made by Gatland weeks ago – at least to the extent of a basic plan in his mind – but the vagaries of form and injury demand he keeps checking, so there he was in Montpellier with around 25,000 yellow-and-blue-flag-waving Clermont fans and about a fifth of that number in Munster red, following every move of the likes of O'Connell, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Peter O'Mahony.
The 33-year-old O'Connell, twice a Heineken winner, has spent a good chunk of the last two years injured and he was fretting again before this match in which Clermont raced into a 16-3 lead before Munster's hearty response with a 60th-minute try by Denis Hurley created and converted by the competition's record points scorer, Ronan O'Gara.
A tweaked groin muscle last Monday prevented O'Connell training the rest of the week. This hard-as-nails, full-of-nous campaigner is a long way from being impregnable to human frailty, whatever the long-standing joke among his admirers that Superman wears Paul O'Connell pyjamas.
Donal Lenihan, the former Ireland lock who led the midweek Lions with distinction in Australia in 1989, was in Montpellier with the media. "Paulie was a little tentative to start with, understandably," said Lenihan. "As the game went on he was a colossus again. This is a young Munster side, an evolving team. To have Paulie just running out on the field added 20 per cent."
O'Connell's latest comeback in the past month has been eventful: he led a quarter-final sacking of Harlequins in London, kicked a Leinster opponent in the head with a much-publicised disciplinary response of no action at all, and has now gone toe-to-toe with Clermont, scrummaging well and calling short line-outs to himself in the hard-going second half. Zebo and Earls struggled to take wing, being more concerned with shackling the fearsomely dynamic Napolioni Nalaga (scorer of Clermont's only try after nine minutes), Sitiveni Sivivatu and Wesley Fofana, plus a 2009 Lions full-back in Lee Byrne.
The French league leaders deservedly reached their first Heineken final 12 months on from a shattering exit in the last four and are reckoned by many including O'Connell himself to be Europe's best.
As it happened, there was another high-quality 2009 Lion on show: Nathan Hines, the Scottish-Australian in Clermont's second row, who grafted diligently to get his team on the front foot, before admitting to being up a gumtree over his chances of a Lions place, subject as he is to the annoying clash between the domestic French final and the start of the tour.
"I'd love to go but it's not my choice," said Hines. "It's only one week different really: whoever is involved in the English and Pro 12 club finals [on 25 May] finishes only one week before the French season. But Warren has indicated he won't pick the France-based players. I'll be watching the squad announcement but I don't expect to go." Let this be added, however: should the need for injury cover arise a week or two into the tour Hines will not let the telephone ring more than once.
Hines went uncapped by the Lions during the 2009 trip – partly due to a short ban for a dangerous tackle – and after it he helped Leinster win the Heineken Cup in 2011. A possible second title awaits in the familiar surrounds of Dublin on 18 May.
So did Hines think his former Lions mucker O'Connell was feeling the pace? "I didn't notice it and he'd been rested the previous weekend, hadn't he?" Hines said. "Munster didn't have much chance to play in the first half but they were back to their old ways in the second half, putting pressure on us. I was glad we didn't give them much. We started well but I got the feeling we dipped a bit and consolidated when we got 13 points ahead and that's not our style. If we'd kept the hammer down we might have pulled further away. We are familiar with Saracens and Toulon but a final is different gravy."
Scorers: Clermont Auvergne: Try Nalaga; Conversion Parra Penalties Parra 3. Munster: Try Hurley Con O'Gara Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King (N Nakaitaci 64), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 62), B Kayser (T Paulo 69), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 77), J Cudmore (J Pierre 39), N Hines, J Bonnaire (capt), J Bardy (A Lapandre 57), D Chouly.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (D Hurley 51), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (D Varley 57), BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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