O'Connell the driving force
Gloucester 7 Munster 20 brendan fanning in Kingsholm
Munster secured their passage to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup as winners of Pool 6 with a game to spare. That match is in Thomond Park next weekend against the only team to upset them in this pool -- Edinburgh -- where the target for the Reds will be a home draw in the quarter-final.
Unlike this affair, they will be less confident that full points against the Scots will get them where they want to be, financially and on the field, for this is a high-scoring competition and even if they hit the figure of 23 pool points it may well see them on the road in the quarters in April.
This was a good night's entertainment, but devoid of the stress factor you need to make these occasions special. Gloucester made nine changes from the mixum gatherum collection they sent over to Limerick in the first leg, but as a club they are so far gone that they were never going to overturn a team with their tails up, and with, despite the raft of changes in personnel from the good days, enough players who believe they will win every time they take to the field in Europe.
Gloucester made a game of it, but you never felt their players believed they could deliver the prize. So even when they were racing away with the stats on territory and possession, it didn't stack up to much. Maybe it would have been different had Billy Twelvetrees nailed two penalties in the first 25 minutes, at which point Ian Keatley had given Munster the lead.
His misses only confirmed the lack of belief. In the blue corner meantime -- Munster were wearing their change strip -- the machine functioned fairly well. After the horror show last weekend Keatley hit four from five off the tee and otherwise had a decent game without straying into stellar territory. Felix Jones was very good though at full back, and up front -- from which Paul O'Connell was plucked for the man of the match award -- there were a clatter of good performances.
It took a while for it all to come together in the shape of a try -- 33 minutes in fact when Munster made the breakthrough, a lovely score finished in tight space by Keith Earls, who went off near the end with cramp. Having been a bit too lateral for too long, they got forwards running hard around the corner and the crucial connection in an aggressive build-up was from O'Connell offloading to Tommy O'Donnell.
With no one in behind what was left of Gloucester's defensive line, Keatley threaded through a lovely grubber kick which sat up perfectly for Earls to run it around. The outhalf added the points to leave Munster 10 points clear.
What happened next was one of those little sequences which can shape the outcome of the game. Freddie Burns left the restart short -- a sickener for the home fans who were already getting restless --and when Keatley pointed to the sticks, anyone in cherry and white was contemplating the end of business. To have dominated the land war to such an extent and fall 13 points behind would have had a hopeless look to it.
Great relief in the home support then when Keatley's kick came back off the upright. From that let-off, Gloucester further improved their predicament. A lovely run and offload by Shane Monahan to Elliot Stooke gave them great go-forward, and then another threatening run off the base by scrumhalf Dan Robson put Munster in trouble.
In fairness to them the finish was very good, with space well preserved for Charlie Sharples to step inside the Munster cover leaving Burns, who took over the goal kicking, to tap over for seven points. So from a potential 13-0 deficit to an actual one of 10-7, we had a game on for the second half instead of a procession to the finish before the away team left with the spoils to catch the bus to the airport. What they needed was a bit of ammunition, and Dave Foley loaded the gun. He clambered into Stooke on the drop-off to the new half -- awkward but no more -- and the crowd called for the gallows. A couple of minutes later he high-tackled Twelvetrees, and the roof nearly came off the Shed. When referee Leighton Hodges decided it wasn't even worth a penalty many of the 16,121 crowd had developed a persecution complex.
It had some entertainment value, but it needed a lot more to raise it to a level where Gloucester could make the quantum leap needed in their game: to get from pressure to points. Munster's defensive line speed was slow enough to give the home team room to attack, but once the contact came there was only one winner. Frequently that contact involved a choke tackle -- six by our count -- which only added to the frustration of the home crowd.
The source of much of that was the Gloucester 10 Freddie Burns. A year ago he was darling of the Shed, now he's a shadow of that status. And the days of their scrum being a weapon are over too. Munster shunted them when necessary, as in the build-up to Peter O'Mahony's try on 61 minutes. That put Munster 17-7 in front and when they survived brilliantly a sustained bout of Gloucester pressure the locals wanted to go home.
Keatley pointed the way with another penalty, on 70 minutes, to leave an appropriate gap between the teams.
Scorers -- Gloucester: C Sharples try, F Burns con. Munster: K Earls, P O'Mahony try each, I Keatley 2 cons, 2 pens.
Gloucester: M Thomas; C Sharples, J May, B Twelvetrees (capt), S Monahan; F Burns, D Robson (T Knoyle 58); Y Thomas, D Dawidiuk (H Edmunds 44), S Puafisi (S Knight 62), E Stooke, J Hudson (T Hivks 74), M Cox (S Kalamafoni 51), G Evans (B Morgan 51), M Kvesic
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (JJ Hanrahan 74), C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy (S Zebo 68); I Keatley, C Murray (D Williams 80); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 65), D Varley (D Casey 77), BJ Botha (S Archer 68), D Foley (D O'Callaghan 68), P O'Connell, P O'Mahony (capt)(CJ Stander 74), J Coughlan , T O'Donnell
Referee: L Hodges (Wales)