Cherry whites easy pickings for Munster
The once-feared Gloucester offered little resistance, writes Neil Francis
Time was that when playing Gloucester at Kingsholm was like walking through a lion's cage in a three-piece pork chop suit. Nowadays the famous cherry whites -- well they're as nice as cherry pie -- toothless, clawless and clueless and the shed is mute and packed full of vegans.
Gloucester's recent form has been appalling and they have played with no pride and very little understanding of their heritage. We were told to expect a backlash but there were plenty of disbelievers in their huddle and you never expected them to have the wit or the intelligence to unpick a Munster side that were going to win this match in their sleep.
That's not true -- Munster had to be wide awake and committed, that was it though, they didn't have to pull anything out of the fire and they rarely played above themselves to canter home safely.
Munster's principle opponents were themselves and whether they could detach themselves from some pretty sloppy performances over the last couple of weeks. Rob Penney made the biggest decision in the pre-match to select Keatley and that decision paid off in spades. Keatley's kicking game, although it might not be respected down south, is far superior to JJ Hanrahan's and there were eight or nine imperious wiper kicks that either got Munster out of trouble or pinned Gloucester back, which took the wind out of their sails and you could see their resistance ebb every time they had to retreat.
This Munster side has no thoroughbreds and are unlikely to be derby winners but they have found it again and with respect to their coach it had very little to do with him.
The game that Munster are playing is anathema to the very core principles that Penney holds dear. The reintroduction of Munster's maul tells you as much and the greater emphasis at scrum time. The first thought is to kick rather than to run and trust his back five to do the damage in field before they fling the ball wide.
Even Munster's centres now take time out of the ball and do what they are supposed to do to maximise their abilities. What use is a coach if he is playing a system which he does not espouse?
The Kiwi has got Munster to the play-offs, you can't complain about that and with a probable bonus point win against Edinburgh next Sunday the likelihood of a home quarter-final irrespective of other results.
Gloucester from their perspective searched deep into the recesses of their minds and knew that they would have to travel to Perpignan next week knowing that Edinburgh would travel to Thomond in unlikely fashion.
Were they even playing for pride yesterday? They hopelessly misjudged what was required to beat Munster and they just were not able to hold on to the ball long enough to apply pressure on a consistent basis.
They got turned over in the choke tackle six or seven times. Why did they not go much lower into contact? They were also imprecise at line-out time where once again Paul O'Connell imposed himself on the Gloucester jumpers picking off several and giving some of the ball won by Gloucester very little advantage.
The difference in quality between Rabo and Aviva sides was starkly illustrated here, particularly when Munster didn't have the ball. The men in blue will be happy with their line speed and their swarming defence. They could also be confident that Gloucester's skills would break down under this sort of pressure.
The always dangerous Sharples, Johnny May and Shane Monaghan were always the recipients of a poor last pass. You could count on both hands the number of times Gloucester were in a good position and the ball either did not go to hand or was delayed.
To counter this sort of pressure Gloucester spent a lot of time flat on the line and Keatley, particularly in the first half, put them on guard with some half decent grubber kicks.
He overused it in the second half but the chip through for Earls in the 32nd minute was a thing of beauty. In the 60th minute, almost as if someone had scripted it, Mahony got over from a strong Munster scrum after one recycle.
Congratulations to Munster -- a professional job and the real prospect of progress from a home quarter-final.