Paul O’Connell and Munster march on to revenge mission
Munster next face Edinburgh at Thomond needing tries to ensure home quarter-final
Munster’s Paul O’Connell is tackled by Gloucester’s Sione Kalamafoni during the Heineken Cup, Pool Six match at Kingsholm Stadium, Gloucester, on Saturday.
The value of this victory, although not without its flaws, was enhanced by Gloucester’s resistance.
Two tries for Keith Earls and the constantly belligerent Peter O’Mahony, crucially on the hour mark, proved the difference but it was the collective defending and authority of Ian Keatley that really ensured first place in Pool Six has been secured with a game to spare.
Munster were far too tactically sophisticated to lose to Gloucester, with a pre-planned tactic of kicking in behind the blitz defence working a treat. Helped by a dominant scrum, Paul O’Connell’s excellence at the breakdown and O’Mahony’s general brilliance the rest reacted to this leadership drive.
O’Connell got the individual recognition of being named man of the match, which seemed about right considering his constant presence, but there were other candidates.
Hit the uprights
Keatley’s only miss from five place kicks was a 50 metre penalty that hit the uprights. Tommy O’Donnell is another who is timing his run well to fill the void of Seán O’Brien against Scotland on February 2nd (granted, stern opposition will come from Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy).
After a poor showing in defeat to Ulster it was Keatley, however, who arrived in Gloucester under enormous strain.
“Keats was tremendous,” said Rob Penney. “It was probably the best game he has had in the red jumper.
“On the back of that he has shown mental fortitude and physical fortitude out there today, tackled like a Trojan and really dominated the ball and put us in really great places in the park to unleash ourselves.
“He owned the 10 jersey today.”
Now the Dubliner must add consistency to keep JJ Hanrahan at bay.
While the cross field punts to wingers and grubbers threatened scores – although flying English winger Charlie Sharples almost made them pay with a break out from under his own posts – Earl’s 35th minute try was more in line with Penney’s Canterbury blueprint.
A rapid change of pace by the Munster forwards, with O’Connell’s offload to O’Donnell causing the major dent led to Keatley bobbling the ball into Earls’ flight path following some quick, efficient ruck clearing by several Munster forwards.
Keatley added the conversion to an earlier penalty for a 10-0 lead.
Munster were in control and Gloucester, for all their intent, were let down by Billy Twelvetrees missing two eminently kickable first half penalties.
Still, what could have been a 13-0 half-time lead was reduced to 10-7 by a fine Sharples try.
The hosts revival was sparked by Earls and Keatley’s former Ireland under-20 teammate Shane Monahan galloping off his wing before a deft offload allowed Elliott Stooke break clear. The lock was hauled down but a rapid recycle saw the ball reach Sharples who ignored an overlap to step inside Johne Murphy then Keatley and sprint under the posts.
Twelvetrees knocked over the easy conversion to ignite a proper Anglo-Irish battle.
Bombarded Munster line
A highly motivated, yet inaccurate Gloucester bombarded the Munster line immediately after half-time but the defensive system – coached by Ian Costello and Anthony Foley – held firm.
Even when Gloucester sucked in numbers and went wide, Felix Jones, Casey Laulala and Johne Murphy were there. James Downey also made a crucial tap tackle in midfield.
“You could see the scrambling and the effort and the energy to try and breach any holes that were being made and that comes down to how tight the group is and the desperation for each other not to let anyone down,” said Penney. “It is a great insight into the way these boys at Munster are thinking and how tight they are becoming, to work so hard on defence when often they are selfless tasks and not a lot of them are recognised.”
It certainly papers over many other cracks.
This was also the sort of night the likes of BJ Botha and O’Connell came to the fore. Tipperary native Dave Foley certainly didn’t look out of place on his European debut alongside his legendary locking partner.
But Gloucester, fuming from the embarrassing defeat to Saracens in front of their beloved Shed last week, refused to take a knee.
And so it went. Bang, batter, scrum. Grapple, squeeze, hold up and scrum some more.
With the hour mark approaching, it was an eight man shove on a Gloucester put-in that that created the game’s defining moment. A fit again Conor Murray was quickest to the loose ball and took off down the touchline. His offload was deflected by a Gloucester hand and a five metre scrum was conceded in the ensuing panic.
Munster fractured their hosts resolve in the ensuing assault, O’Donnell keeping hold of possession as referee Leighton Hodges indicated advantage before O’Mahony bludgeoned a path to the line.
Keatley’s confidence soared with the conversion as Gloucester coach Nigel Davies continued to unleash his reserves.
In contrast, Penney had kept his powder dry until late on.
Not that the battle was won. Far from it. Gloucester, determined to avoid further humiliation, emptied the tank but Munster could not be broken.
Winning a turnover
When the reserves did arrive, James Cronin, a young prop, wasn’t long winning a turnover in open country.
O’Connell also refused to wilt, an encouraging sight with the Six Nations in sight, bringing matters into Gloucester territory before another Munster penalty enraged the local crowd.
Keatley duly made it 20-7 to make calls for JJ Hanrahan’s promotion look premature.
On they march to a revenge mission against Edinburgh next Sunday at Thomond Park, needing tries to ensure a home quarter-final.