Gloucester 7 Munster 20
Munster have won Pool Six of the Heineken Cup with a game to spare. Edinburgh's inability to get a bonus point against Perpignan tonight saw to that.
All that now remains is to secure a home quarter-final by overcoming the Scottish at Thomond Park next Sunday. There is some unfinished business in this fixture after last October’s collapse at Murrayfield. That stutter may yet be seen as the making of their season.
Tonight’s performance was far from perfect but an enormous defensive effort coupled with scores at the essential moments got them out of the Kingsholm bear-bit with a valuable victory.
A messy opening 40 minutes was largely dictated by Munster’s pre-planned tactics to kick as an offensive tool. They were helped by a dominant scrum, Paul O’Connell’s technical superiority at the breakdown and Peter O’Mahony’s general brilliance.
O’Connell got the individual recognition of being named man of the match. That seemed about right but there were plenty of candidates.
And still, they only had a three point lead to show for it all at the break.
The plan was unmistakably based around Conor Murray and particularly Ian Keatley putting boot to ball at every opportunity.
The old way almost, they were tempting pacy Gloucester three quarters to counter from deep and trusting their defence to reap the benefits.
Essentially it paid off, with Keatley bobbling a ball into Keith Earls’s flight path for a try five minutes before the interval.
But that try was created by a rapid change of pace by Munster forwards, with O’Connell’s offload to Tommy O’Donnell causing the major dent that eventually saw Earls gather and race over. The rapid cleaning out by several navy jerseys was equally important.
Keatley added the conversion to an earlier penalty for a 10-0 lead.
Munster were in control. This was emphasised by Freddie Burns botching the restart. From the resulting scrum, Leighton Hodges rewarded the burrowing Dave Kilcoyne but Keatley's 50 metre strike hit the crossbar.
What could have been 13-0 was instead 10-7 when the 30 players disappeared under the new stand.
The revival was sparked by the former Ireland under-20 team-mate of Earls and Keatley, Shane Monahan, galloping off his wing with a deft offload allowing Elliott Stooke to break clear. He was collared but a rapid recycle saw the ball reach the ever dangerous Charlie Sharples. The England wing backed himself by riskily ignoring an overlap to step inside Johne Murphy then Keatley and sprint under the posts.
Twelvetrees knocked over the easy conversion but that hardly atoned for missing two eminently kickable penalties.
Still, after the phony war, we had ourselves a proper Anglo-Irish duel.
A highly motivated, yet inaccurate Gloucester bombarded the Munster line immediately after half-time but the defence held. Or, more accurately, the aggressive tackling of Munster players, like Felix Jones, forced the handling error.
It was the sort of night when men like BJ Botha and O'Connell came to the fore. Dave Foley certainly didn't look out of place on his European debut. Casey Laulala was also amongst it at every turn. Tommy O'Donnell was another welcome sight all over the field, looking primed to feature at national level in the coming weeks.
Jimmy Downey was another relishing the environment where he made his bones, facing English opposition. Having name checked the rest, it would be remiss to ignore the industry of Damien Varley and James Coughlan.
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 them up. Scrum some more. Probably a bore on television but enjoyable violence up close and personal.
With an hour gone, it was an eight-man shove that delivered the killer score. Murray scooped up the loose ball to race down the touchline and his offload was batted over the Gloucester line.
From the five metre scrum they fractured Gloucester, O’Donnell keeping hold of possession as Hodges indicated advantage before O’Mahony bludgeoned a path to the line.
The captain had been relatively anonymous for a few minutes but right on cue he delivered.
Keatley's confidence soared with the conversion as Gloucester coach Nigel Davies continued to unleash his reserves. In contrast, Rob Penney had kept his powder dry. Not that the battle was won. Far from it. Gloucester, determined to avoid further humiliation at home, emptied the tank but the Munster line held. That was the most impressive aspect of this performance.
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 Gloucester crowd.
Keatley duly made it 20-7 to make calls for JJ Hanrahan’s promotion look premature.
On they march.
Scoring sequence – 21 mins: I Keatley pen, 3-0; 34 mins: K Earls try, 8-0; I Keatley conv, 10-0; 40 mins: C Sharples try, 10-5; B Twelvetrees conv, 10-7. Half-time. 60 mins: P O'Mahony try, 15-7; I Keatley conv, 17-7; 70 mins: I Keatley pen, 20-7.
Gloucester: M Thomas; C Sharples, J May, B Twelvetrees (capt), S Monahan; F Burns, D Robson; Y Thomas, D Dawiduik, S Puafisi; E Stooke, J Hudson; M Cox, M Kvesic, G Evans. Replacements: H Edmonds for D Dawiduik (44 mins), S Kalamafoni for M Cox, B Morgan for G Evans (both 50 mins), T Knoyle for D Robson (57 mins), R Cook for M Thomas (58 mins), S Knight for S Puafisi (62 mins), T Hicks for J Hudson (74 mins)
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Foley, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: J Cronin for D Kilcoyne (64 mins), S Archer for BJ Botha, D O'Callaghan for D Foley (both 68 mins), CJ Stander for P O'Mahony, JJ Hanrahan for K Earls (both 74 mins), D Casey for D Varley (77 mins), D Williams for C Murray (79 mins) Referee: L Hodges (Wales).