Holding his head in his hands, Tomás O’Leary cut a disconsolate figure when stretchered off at Musgrave Park on Friday night last.
The ambulance that zipped him away from the ground confirmed to supporters that the signs weren’t good for the Munster scrum-half.
Walking out of Musgrave after a 29-10 bonus point win that puts the province within touching distance of the Magners League, supporters speculated on the nature of O’Leary’s injury.
A day later, those fears were confirmed, as O’Leary’s fractured ankle ruled him out of the remainder of Munster’s campaign as well as the Lions tour to South Africa.
In a contact sport like rugby, one expects lots of injuries, serious ones too. But it is odd that so many of the injuries suffered by players come about in relatively innocuous circumstances – a little like what happened to O’Leary on Friday.
“It goes without saying that we are very disappointed to lose a player of Tomás’s stature at this crucial stage of the season, even more particularly so, from his own personal point of view, given that he had just been selected to tour with the Lions, and our thoughts are with him in that regard,” said Tony McGahan.
“However in immediate terms, in Tomás and Peter Stringer we are fortunate to have two of the best scrumhalves in the country in our squad and the experience of Mike Prendergast to call on when required.”
O’Leary’s injury marred another good Munster win, which puts them 16 points clear at the top of the Magners League and in a virtually unassailable position in terms of the title race.
After a first half in which they murdered the Llanelli pack, with Ronan O’Gara opting for repeated scrums to hammer home his team’s advantage, Munster’s superiority was evident throughout.
Alan Quinlan was superb; a constant menace at the breakdown and the instigator of several attacks. Denis Leamy, one of Munster’s try scorers, also had a productive evening and didn’t play like a man burned by his Lions exclusion: as is the Munster way, he just got on with it.
O’Gara, who has adjusted his kicking stance in recent weeks, had another flawless evening off the tee and got the backs moving well when the time demanded it.
Lifeimi Mafi was a constant threat, as were Doug Howlett and Ian Dowling, the latter surely playing himself into serious consideration for Ireland looking down the line.
Sure, it wasn’t the greatest of Munster performances, but when you score four tries and run up 29 points without playing too well, it tells you something about the confident mood in the camp.
O’Leary’s injury aside, this was another good night at the office for Tony McGahan’s team, its focus still firmly set on lifting a Magners League/Heineken Cup double. It’s going to take one hell of a team to stop them.
Will Leinster be that team? There’s little doubt that they owe Munster a beating after the 2006 semi-final defeat in Lansdowne Road and the two Magners League reversals this season.
Felipe Contepomi, who, with one exception, has fluffed his lines whenever he’s caught sight of a red jersey, will not want to end his Leinster career without one last big performance. Croke Park next Saturday certainly presents such an occasion for the Puma.
The Heineken Cup semi-final looks set to become the best attended match in club rugby history, a feat that was scarcely conceivable little over a decade ago, when only a few hundred attended interprovincial matches.
The game is riding on an unprecedented crest of a wave, with the hype machine set to kick firmly into gear before the end of the week.
While Munster go into the tie as favourites, it’s by no means home and hosed for the holders.
Leinster’s pack has held its own against Munster in recent years, most notably in Musgrave Park last season when the men in blue ended a long losing streak in the south.
Both teams know each other inside out, which makes Saturday’s tussle intriguing. While Munster have already scaled the heights of performance this season, Leinster have shown greater resilience without producing their traditional champagne rugby all that often.
Past form will count for nothing come the big kick-off. Both teams are packed with potential match winners and if both backlines ignite, we could be in for a classic. Come full-time, Munster should be still standing in this competition – but not by very much.