Payne: 'Well over 100 straw bales ended up being used on the pitch'

UP to 100 round bales of straw were used at Thomond Park to ensure the playing surface was playable for Saturday night's crunch Magners League tie with the Cardiff Blues.

UP to 100 round bales of straw were used at Thomond Park to ensure the playing surface was playable for Saturday night's crunch Magners League tie with the Cardiff Blues.

A thick blanket of straw helped protect the pitch from the freezing conditions of recent days to ensure Munster's final fixture before Sunday's glamour Heineken Cup clash with the Ospreys at Thomond Park got the green light.

Munster maintained their grip on top spot in the league, thanks to a gritty 16-9 success. The game also saw Paul O'Connell's long-awaited return to the red of Munster.

Skipper O'Connell - who made his last appearance for the province in January - has been sidelined with a groin injury and was introduced as a second half replacement against the Cardiff Blues.

Munster team manager Shaun Payne said they were delighted the game had gone ahead. With the return of the province's international stars following the November series and Paul O'Connell's return to the fray it was hugely important that the round 10 tie should take place.

Shaun Payne said: "Well over 100 straw bales ended up being used on the pitch. I don't know how thick the straw was, but it was nearly up to my knees when I walked around it. It worked very, very well.

"It was a bit of an old school solution which very often still ends up being the best.

"It still allowed air on the pitch. The pitch was perfectly playable tonight when I think every other ground in Munster would have been unplayable.

"From Tuesday on a massive amount of work went on to ensure the pitch was ready for the game. I would like to thank the ground staff and everyone involved.

"It was obviously very important for us to have the game. I know Cardiff were very keen as well that the game go ahead. We had a lot of guys coming back from international duty tonight and then you had Paulie (O'Connell) coming back from injury too.

"You could see we were a bit ring rusty out there, there was a lot of slipped ball. It was very slippery and dewey. But we were delighted to get a game. That is the most important thing.

"You heard the crowd's reaction when Paul (O'Connell) came on. He is one of the talismen of the team. He has a massive impact on the team.

"Paul has been out since March and has not played with us since January. He cannot stop grinning in there having got back. It is great for all of us to have him back.

"I would rate that victory as just a victory. It wasn't a great performance. It was disjointed and you could see it was the first game back for a number of lads in terms of the cohesion of the team. It was a win, we will take it as that."

The decision of Munster Rugby chiefs to bring the kick-off time on Saturday evening forward by some two and a half hours to 5pm proved a master stroke.

The match venue was shrouded in freezing fog for the closing ten minutes of play. It is unlikely the game would have taken place at all had the original kick-off time of 7.30pm stood.

Munster's Heineken Cup round three game with the Ospreys at Thomond Park this Sunday which has a 1pm kick-off. Munster Rugby announced over the weekend that the game is a sell-out.

Munster coach Tony McGahan appeared to indicate that Paul O'Connell may start Sunday's marquee Heineken Cup clash with the Ospreys on the replacements bench as his match fitness continues to improve.

"It was fantastic for Paul (O'Connell), for Munster and for the supporters to have him back," Tony McGahan said.

"Paul has been gone for a long time from the red jersey. For him to get himself back in this nick at this point in time is terrific. The squad will get a huge boost from having his back.

"Paul looks after himself really well and he has worked very hard with our fitness staff that did a terrific job to getting him back to playing.

"He got through 40-odd minutes last week (with Young Munster in the AIL) and 25 minutes again tonight, so he will accumulate that and will be the better for that in the long run.

"We'll have to wait and see how he pulls up. It could be a bit of a stretch at this stage (for O'Connell to start), we have to wait and put everything together.

"The important thing is that we want him here to play for the rest of the season, we don't want to push him too early."