How regal reds silenced Kingsholm

IN their record tenth successive Heineken Cup quarter-final appearance, Munster stormed the historical fortress of English rugby at Kingsholm to register a third victory away from home at this stage of the competition — another cup record.

It proved the only away victory of the four quarter-finals, underlining once again just how difficult a task it is.

Munster’s weekend got even better yesterday with Saracens’ shock 19-10 victory over the Ospreys at Vicarage Road, where a side backboned by the Welsh Grand Slammers was unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by a Saracens side showing infinitely more commitment.

Fate is a strange animal. Former Munster coach Alan Gaffney now stands between Paul O’Connell’s men and a fourth Heineken Cup final appearance. As anticipated, Toulouse advanced to their eighth semi-final, where they will meet London Irish for whom this represents virgin territory.

Reminiscent of those magnificent scenes at the Stade Jean-Bouin in 2002 and Welford Road the following season, when Stade Francais and Leicester were dispatched against the odds, the Munster faithful flooded onto the Kingsholm surface at the final whistle to acknowledge another historic achievement. The Gloucester players and support were left to watch and wonder.

Saturday’s victory will bring particular satisfaction to Declan Kidney, who despite being under the microscope for Eddie O’Sullivan’s vacant national post, put his head on the block and made the brave decision to alter a winning side. In the performances of rookie full back Denis Hurley, making his Heineken Cup debut in such a demanding cauldron and Tomás O’Leary, his selection was vindicated.

This was also triumph in adversity as Marcus Horan was forced to withdraw due to a back spasm during the warm up. Thirty five minutes before kick off, Freddie Pucciariello sat in his suit in the stand and Tony Buckley contemplated life as an impact sub. It was a difficult afternoon for Buckley as John Hayes’s heir apparent at tight head was forced to line out on the loose head side of the scrum against the highly experienced Carlos Nieto. It was a difficult ask.

With only two scrums in the opening 26 minutes, it was of little significance up to the time that Gloucester forced a series of scrums five metres from the Munster line. Clearly under pressure, Kidney made the brave call to withdraw Buckley. Pucciariello’s introduction steadied the ship and contributed to Munster keeping their try line intact. It was a key moment in the game.

Gloucester, stung by accusations that they have a soft underbelly, came out with a physical intensity that, if anything, went overboard. Alan Quinlan was taken out off the ball and Leslie Vainikolo attempted to inflict serious damage on Rua Tipoki. He picked the wrong man.

Despite being on the back foot for the majority of the opening half, Munster’s experience and composure under pressure helped to ride the storm. In boxing parlance, the opening 30 minutes of this game was like Ali v Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle. Munster absorbed punch after punch for long periods before countering with a knockout blow.

It was a massive setback to the already brittle confidence of the Gloucester players when they failed to register any points from their period of dominance, due primarily to three incredible penalty misses from Chris Paterson, two of which he would normally slot with his eyes closed.

As befits all great teams, Munster countered and in a flash produced a try from deep in their own 22 that was a thing of beauty. It stemmed from another outstanding turnover by Quinlan metres from the Munster line and was inspired by the genius of Doug Howlett. Standing as first receiver, he had the vision to run. Releasing Ian Dowling on the left wing, the Kilkenny man did an impersonation of Shane Williams at his best, beating defender after defender. After an incredible 18 phases and with Tipoki and Howlett handling several times, Dowling popped up on the opposite wing to finish off a move that tore the heart out of the home side.

Despite enjoying so much territory and possession, Gloucester retreated to the gloom of the dressing room at the break eight points in arrears, having failed to register a single score in that opening half. Of even more significance the famed Shed, credited with intimidating the most hard-nosed of English sides over the years, was shocked into a stunned silence from which they never recovered.

On the resumption, Gloucester were suckered into taking on Munster at their own game up front. In the opening quarter, when they played with width, they looked extremely dangerous with James Simpson-Daniel causing all kinds of problems. Yet they started the second half trying to boss the tight exchanges and scrum half Rory Lawson resorting to an endless series of box kicks. In the end he was a nervous wreck from the close attention he was receiving from Quinlan and Donncha O’Callaghan.

Gloucester lost the physical battle when Paul O’Connell came into his own and led the charge for the final 30 minutes. Some of Munster’s off-loading in the tackle was spectacular and created all kinds of problems for the Cherry and Whites. When Howlett scored his third try in three games after great work by Hurley, the contest was well and truly over with sixteen minutes left to play.

While the contributions of O’Leary and Hurley will quite rightly be applauded because of the nature of their selection, this was a complete team performance characterised by an insatiable appetite for work. Nowhere was this more obvious than the manner in which the three New Zealanders put their bodies on the line.

On the final whistle, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki embraced like the All Blacks had just won the World Cup. Munster has that effect on people. No matter where you come from, you give everything to the cause.

From here, it is a return to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry where this current journey started against Wasps last November. Just 80 minutes away from another final appearance, Munster are very much in the driving seat.

How did we ever survive without the Heineken Cup?

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