Pro12 final: O'Connell & Kellock poised for final showdown

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Paul O'Connell and Al Kellock
Paul O'Connell and Al Kellock are poised to exit their clubs
Pro12 final: Glasgow Warriors v Munster
Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday, 30 May Kick-off: 18:30 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Scotland, Radio Scotland and BBC Sport website

In the wake of their Pro12 semi-final victory over the Ospreys last weekend, Paul O'Connell came out with a throwaway line that he'd probably just played his last-ever game for Munster at Thomond Park.

It wasn't so much an announcement as a low-key, no-fuss comment in the middle of an interview. In many ways, it was entirely in keeping with O'Connell's unassuming personality; not for him, the fanfare.

There were rumours, of course, that this was the Limerick endgame, but O'Connell had refused to feed them.

After 14 years in which he has won two Heineken Cups and three Celtic League titles, and has set the standard by which everyone else at the club lives, the long farewell was not for him.

Brian O'Driscoll had a goodbye tour and was entitled to it, but O'Connell, 35, preferred to slip away quietly - or as quietly as can be, given the thunder that still exists in his game, the enormous desire for success that will see him spend the last two years of his playing career in Toulon, the pre-eminent club on the continent.

That move is expected to be confirmed next week.

Jonny Gray touches down for Glasgow against Munster
Glasgow edged out Munster to top the Pro12 table

On Saturday, in the Pro12 final at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, O'Connell will end the most magnificent adventure - and how he will be missed in the province.

O'Connell would be the first to say that no man is irreplaceable, but there will be many in Munster who'd question that. They will miss him terribly; his intensity on the field and his humility off it.

A small example: when his local paper, the Limerick Leader, organised a campaign recently to clean up the city, O'Connell was one of the first on to the streets with his sweeping brush. A hero and an everyman in one beloved package.

The goodbyes in Belfast don't begin and end with O'Connell, though.

His fellow number five and mirror image in the inspiration stakes, Al Kellock, will also make his final appearance, off the bench. There is no glamour move to France for Kellock after this - he's retiring, full-stop.

Kellock has been a colossus for Glasgow, a leader off the park as much as on it: a second-row, a captain, an ambassador, a chief bottle washer.

Part of the reason why Glasgow have made such strides is because of Kellock's influence around the place.

Glasgow Warriors' Stuart Hogg (left) celebrates
Warriors booked their place in the final with a thrilling victory against Ulster

Newcomers look at his dedication and passion and they understand what's required - or they don't last very long.

The Scot may not have reached the stratospheric highs of O'Connell in his career - he's even been in and out of the team quite a lot in recent times - but his impact in his own place has been just as profound.

The dual departures lend the Pro12 final an added fascination. Two men leaving but only one of them will have the finale that their vast support would want for them.

These two teams finished joint-top of the league, only points difference dividing them. They're the best in the competition, but they have issues. In recent weeks, Glasgow have lost some of the stability that they had for much of the season.

They have creaked at times: they put in a sub-standard performance in the semi-final against Ulster but got out of jail courtesy of guts and brilliance at the death.

DTH Van Der Merwe in action for Glasgow Warriors
DTH van der Merwe will also aim to go out with a bang at Warriors

They were poor for large chunks of the match against a weakened Ulster the previous week and the week before that they were comfortably taken down by the Ospreys.

Their scrum and lineout have been rocky, the number of handling errors has been rising and they have taken an age in games to crank up their phase-play and their aggression. They get there in the end; a testament to their character.

They have a backline that can cause huge problems to any team, but their forwards have been too passive for too long in matches in recent weeks. The Glasgow pack needs to rediscover its inner-grunt.

Gregor Townsend, their hugely impressive coach, has altered his team and already it looks better: Gordon Reid is back in at loose-head and that's an upgrade on Ryan Grant; Rob Harley returns at blind-side and brings aggression and a marvellous capacity to mess opponents around.

On the wing, DTH van der Merwe, another man saying farewell, comes in for Niko Matawalu, the creative but utterly unpredictable and defensively suspect Fijian.

Matawalu is Glasgow's break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option: a game-breaker who Townsend deploys presumably with his fingers crossed that the game he breaks is the other team's and not his own.

Munster are nobody's idea of the complete side. For a club that has known such success, they are now four years without a trophy.

Only four of their players who will start in the Pro12 final have won something with Munster: Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and O'Connell.

Time has moved on for them since winning the Magners League in 2011. That team had Doug Howlett and Ronan O'Gara; Marcus Horan and John Hayes; Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace. Icons all.

Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend continues his meteoric rise at Glasgow

Since then, they have lost two Pro12 semi-finals and two Heineken Cup semi-finals.

They're still a very dangerous team with a maul that could blast Glasgow to kingdom come unless Townsend's team have got a plan for it, but they're less of a force than Leinster were when beating Glasgow in last year's final. Munster have also suffered the grievous loss of Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony through injury.

Their own passage to the final was fraught. Not as hair-raising as Glasgow's in Scotstoun but nervous enough. Against the Ospreys, they had a big lead and almost coughed it up at the end. They had kick after kick at goal and Ian Keatley kept missing.

They spurned 15 points from the tee, a level of profligacy that will see them beaten in Belfast if it's repeated. This will be a game of fine margins.

Munster are looking for their sixth major title, but Glasgow are justifiable favourites even though they're still without silverware in the professional era. At their best, Townsend's team have the ammunition to win.

They also have a better cavalry on the bench. They need attitude and accuracy and more dog up front than they've shown recently.

That's the combination that will see them home. Anything less and it'll be the great O'Connell who gets the fairytale ending and not Kellock. Two warriors, but only winner.

Top Stories