Munster grind out Gloucester win to qualify for Heineken Cup last eight
Munster qualified for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the 15th time in 16 seasons after a scrappy but ultimately convincing win in fortress Gloucester thanks to tries in each half from Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony.
And, while a home quarter-final will probably prove beyond their reach, they were at least boosted by the return to action of Lions pair Conor Murray and Simon Zebo after lengthy lay-offs and a man of the match display from Paul O’Connell.
Munster led 10-7 at half-time but, in truth, should have led by more as they allowed their focus to slip in the face of some elaborate open field running from the home side.
As expected, Munster began with the intention of establishing their dominance up front; in contrast, Gloucester were up from about their strategy – they were prepared to run the ball from anywhere.
Indeed, on Munster’s first visit to their 22, they did so from behind their own line, Charlie Sharples zooming zanily from beneath the posts in tandem with Jonny May to create the field position for a tilt at goal.
Billy Twelvetrees would miss from a decent distance and he would do so again as Ian Keatley showed him how it was done when he slotted over in the 22nd minute to calm the away side’s nerves.
Munster’s supporters had taken over the fabled “Shed”; now their team were determined to get a stranglehold on the game.
Keatley was kicking well and Munster seemed to on top in collisions and breakdown, neutering the home side’s enterprising approach.
Munster didn’t want to play too much football but they were sucked in by the home side to do just that; thankfully, as their hosts huffed and puffed, Munster struck gold first and Keith Earls pounced to complete a wonderful collective try in the 33rd minute.
It was a rare confection of direct running and good off-loading, particularly from Paul O’Connell, as Munster demonstrated that a team can go wide by going forward with physical intent.
Ultimately, Keatley’s neat end over end grubber bounced perfectly for Earls and, as he dotted beneath the posts, a 10-0 lead with the kettle boiling was the perfect scenario.
However, Gloucester remained vividly faithful to their approach and after a loose Casey Laulala clearance as Munster messed around in their territory, that man Sharples nabbed a zinger of a try on the half-time bell.
Boyne man Shane Monahan created an ocean of space in the midfield and when Sharples got the ball out wide, he accelerated and stepped past flailing Munster duo Johne Murphy and Keatley to score.
Freddie Burns assumed the place-kicking duties and justifiably so, edging his side to an improbable 10-7 deficit when it seemed that they had lost control and Munster had assumed it.
A mistake from Dave Foley on the restart allowed Gloucester to remain on the front foot and they sensed blood but in phased attack they were fairly average and you felt Munster just needed to trust their defence to repel the Cherry & Whites.
They did so, quite successfully, but barely found time to play any rugby themselves as they constantly soaked up pressure from the home side who were struggling to make any linebreaks.
James Downey’s hand trip on the elusive May stemmed another potential counter-attack try out of nothing as the game increasingly seemed as if it may turn on one moment of magic.
Or an error.
When Gloucester boobed on a 22 metre scrum, Conor Murray almost pounced to set Tommy O’Donnell free but the home side scrambled effectively but, finally, Munster were camped on the home side’s try-line on the hour mark.
From the five-metre scrum, Munster maximised their muscle, captain Peter O’Mahony barrelling over to re-establish some breathing space as Keatley continued his excellent kicking evening by adding the extras for a 17-7 lead.
Gloucester still threatened and Dave Foley had to be alert as the brave home side pressed repeatedly, refusing to be unbowed by the concession of that second try.
However, a dreadful decision from Leighton Hodges, who didn’t endear himself to coach Nigel Davies all evening, ensured victory for Munster.
Keatley was allowed another chance from the tee; he converted for 20-7 with just ten minutes left on the clock. They watched it tick down in relative comfort.
Gloucester: M Thomas (R Cook 59); C Sharples, J May, B Twelvetrees (c), S Monahan; F Burns, D Robson (T Knoyle 58); Y Thomas (D Murphy 59), D Dawiduik (H Edmonds 45), S Puafisi (S Knight 63), E Stooke, J Hudson (T Hicks 75), M Cox (S Kalafamoni 51), M Kvesic, G Evans (B Morgan 51).
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (, JJ Hanrahan 75), C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy (S Zebo 69); I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 65), D Varley (D Casey 78), BJ Botha (S Archer 69), D Foley (D O'Callaghan 69), P O'Connell, P O'Mahony capt (CJ Stander 75), T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.
Referee: L Hodges (WRU)