Wednesday 13 December 2017

Penney's troops steeled for life on road

Gloucester 7 Munster 20

Simon Zebo return was a further boost for Rob Penney
Simon Zebo return was a further boost for Rob Penney
David Kelly

David Kelly

No miracles required this time. Indeed, the only enduring phenomena this weekend were other familiar Munster traits -- their ability to consistently respond to setbacks and withstand pressure, combined with their supporters' ever-resourceful aptitude to inveigle themselves intimately in enemy territory.

When Rob Penney's side emerged shortly before 5.0, the fabled Kingsholm 'Shed' was already beginning to form its mongrel concoction of both home and away support in an intoxicating atmosphere; by kick-off the red hordes would be resolutely drowning out the home faithful's throaty thrusts.

It was a similar picture on the field as the home side were eventually emasculated, albeit for those watching in black and white, Munster's garish, off-navy away strip altered their uniform. Their commitment to the task at hand would hardly waver, however.

Gloucester danced and ducked but rarely delivered penetration, save for an appalling first-half defensive lapse that coughed up a try, principally caused by Casey Laulala's loose kick and his unforgivable drift against the defensive grain.

Aside from that, although Munster at times seemed to wallow without the ball rather than with it, as well as making about three times as many tackles as the home mob (and missing a fair few too), it always felt as if the visitors had the home side at an arm's length.

If this were a boxing contest, Munster weren't heavyweights though; more like welterweights. They're rising up the rankings slowly, however. Their inability to land the knockout blow was evident; so too, their fallibility to the sucker punch just before half-time.

But, while Gloucester huffed and puffed for most of the evening, collectively exorcising some demons from humiliation here last weekend, Munster's force of personality would eventually prevail.

That much was evident in some key deliveries; Ian Keatley atoned for last week's kicking woes with a consummate display, utterly eclipsing both playmakers -- the pitiful Freddie Burns and the manful Billy Twelvetrees -- in the opposition ranks.

The front five were robust, regardless of Nigel Davies' assertion that his side bossed the scrum and the eccentricity of referee Leighton Hodges, who at one stage delivered an adjudication -- based on the hit -- which the IRB had confirmed was no longer relevant just 48 hours earlier.

The back-row delivered what was expected of them, sterling work on the floor when so many of Gloucester's erratic attacks, dogged by schoolboy passing errors, faltered.

Through it all, like an eternal beacon of excellence, Paul O'Connell stood head and shoulders above his team-mates, his display mimicking last season's Stoop coup, with the final penalty he secured the coup de grace.

This felt like an important week in the season for Munster -- and O'Connell's future with the club. After the Ravenhill fallout, there was much introspection, several honest meetings and an altered training schedule. Munster will feel they can beat anyone -- anywhere -- in the last eight.

"Well, we beat Perpignan away, we've won here," said Penney. "To me it doesn't have any relevance at all. If we prepare well and individuals prepare well, it doesn't matter. The rugby field's the same size and Munster supporters travel everywhere so it's like a home game anyway."

After crumpling to a crippling and costly defeat in Round 1, it seemed highly improbable that Munster could have qualified for their 15th quarter-final in 16 seasons with a game to spare.

"Peter (O'Mahony) has been brilliant in terms of leadership in this competition since then, focusing on every week as if it were a cup final," added Penney, who has resigned himself to bringing the side on the road in April.

They will attempt to wreak total revenge on Edinburgh in Limerick next Sunday -- they will surely compile five match points, but the numbers still probably won't stack up for a lucrative Limerick last-eight tie, barring improbable reverses for French giants Clermont and Toulon.

As expected, Munster began with the intention of establishing their dominance up front; in contrast, Gloucester were up front 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.

Twelvetrees would miss from a decent distance and he would do so again as Keatley showed him how it was done when he slotted over in the 22nd minute to calm the away side's nerves.

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 O'Connell, as Munster demonstrated that a team can go wide by going forward with physical intent.


Ultimately, Keatley's grubber kick 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 Laulala clearance as Munster messed around in their territory, 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. Burns assumed the place-kicking duties, edging his side to an improbable 10-7 deficit just when it seemed that they had lost control and Munster had assumed it.

Gloucester continued to probe after the break and it was now that Munster's defence contributed so significantly to the slow undermining of the Cherry and White challenge.

"Once we let them in for that try before half-time, they came out with their tails up and I think it was 46:40 before we got out of our '22'," said Penney.

"Then we got a scrum on halfway and we blitzed them and turned the ball over, then we had a scrum down on their goal-line, Peter gets a try and Keats kicked beautifully with a couple of penalties just to keep it ticking over. So it was a massive six to 10 minutes that first defensive period."

And another potentially important springboard in a season which has confirmed that, even though they top both their league tables, their rising standards are still struggling to keep pace with rising expectations.

Munster demand nothing else but the best.

Gloucester -- M Thomas (R Cook 59); C Sharples, J May, B Twelvetrees (capt), 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.

Ref -- L Hodges (WRU)

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