Trouble is, as always it seems, they will most likely have to negotiate the knockout stages the hard way on the road. If only Rob Penney’s side could have back those last kamikaze 12 minutes in Murrayfield.
That disastrous turnaround in fortunes against Edinburgh back in October turned the rest of their Pool 6 campaign into a win or go home shoot-out and, having stayed in the game into 2014, Saturday night’s hard-earned and deserved victory in Gloucester squared off the group with a game to spare.
Edinburgh must still come to Limerick for the final game this Sunday but the pool is Munster’s as is qualification for the 15th time in 16 seasons. Alas, even if revenge is exacted over the Scots this weekend with a bonus-point victory, a home draw may yet prove elusive and head coach Penney is not holding out any hopes that Thomond Park will be staging a money-spinning quarter-final in April. It all boils down to letting victory slip from their grasp with that sleep-walking performance at Murrayfield.
It says much for this group of players that the fateful moment when JJ Hanrahan launched an ill-advised chip over an advancing Edinburgh line and gifted wing Tim Visser the match-winning try was a galvanising moment. Hanrahan laid his personal demons from that day to rest in short order and Munster went on a nine-match unbeaten run that saw them top the pool in Europe and lead the RaboDirect Pro12 by three points, even after Ulster had brought that winning streak to an end 10 days ago at Ravenhill.
The slip-ups have been few and far between, as have been the high points in Munster’s play but throughout these past 12 weeks since defeat in Edinburgh has been evidence that this new generation of Munster players has inherited all the mental strength of their Europe-conquering predecessors.
Nowhere has it been better displayed than at Kingsholm on Saturday night, when a Gloucester side wounded by a home humiliation by Saracens in their last game, threw everything they had at Munster and came away with all but a little restored pride to show for it.
Determined and desperate to atone in front of their supporters, Gloucester were a vast improvement on their abject performance the previous week but still not good enough to breach the Munster line more than once.
That came just before half-time when that defensive line parted like the Red Sea and allowed Charlie Sharples to cancel out Keith Earls’s 32nd-minute try against the run of play. It left the home side trailing just 10-7 at the interval when the score could instead easily have been 13-0 after Ian Keatley, otherwise immaculate off the tee following his poor performance at Ulster, struck a post with a penalty from the halfway line.
Sharples’ score converted by Freddie Burns, who had taken over kicking duties from the off-key Billy Twelvetrees, gave Gloucester plenty of pep in their step and they set about Munster with gusto after the break. For a critical 10 minutes the visitors were stuck in their own 22, soaking up wave after wave of Cherry and White attacks.
Yet Gloucester stayed point-less, and despite their greatest efforts, would prove second best throughout the second half where they were dominated at the set-piece, outshone at the breakdown and thwarted offensively. Munster not only kept them pointless after the break with some heroic tackling but landed a sucker punch on the hour when captain Peter O’Mahony stole over from the base of a ruck to land the killer blow, converted by the reinvigorated Keatley.
“I don’t know about a watershed,” Penney said of the victory, “but it is certainly a proud moment and these performances are coming with a group who have an inexperienced nine and 10, compared with what Munster had for the last 10 or so years. To be able to take those games is just so pleasing in terms of where the resilience and playing level is getting to with this group.”
Penney has steeled himself for another away day in the quarter-finals but with victories at Harlequins last season and two more in this campaign, he will not be fazed by the prospect.
“Well, we beat Perpignan away, we’ve won here away,” he said. “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.”
Kingsholm certainly had a warm Munster-like glow about it on Saturday night, the province’s hordes making Gloucester’s famous Shed side their own and neutralising any possible hostility that might have been generated by the home support.
That was certainly felt by the Munster players, led by O’Mahony, and inspired by his predecessor Paul O’Connell, both of whom led the rearguard with a wholehearted commitment that transferred to their team-mates, epitomised by the way Johne Murphy, Heineken Cup debutant Dave Foley and Felix Jones wrapped up Sharples as he threatened the line once again late on and bundled the England wing into touch.
It was one of those nights built on character and effort, both showcased by fly-half Keatley, who defended valiantly, kept the scoreboard ticking over with diligent place-kicking and managed the Munster game plan superbly, just eight nights after probably his poorest display for the province in his three seasons since leaving Connacht.
“Keats was tremendous today,” Penney said, “probably the best performance he had in the red jumper and he deserves all the plaudits that I hope he gets because he has copped a little bit on the back of that [Ulster game] he has showed mental fortitude and physical fortitude out there today.
“He owned the 10 jersey today and hopefully for him that is the marker for him to kick on. He was hurt last week and like all good players... he’s bounced back big time with a great performance. All you can say is, it’s great credit to the man for doing that because it’s tough.”
The same can be said of this Munster team. The performances must still improve but as a foundation for better to come, this will do nicely.
GLOUCESTER: M Thomas (R Cook, 58); C Sharples, J May, B Twelvetrees, capt, S Monahan; F Burns, D Robson (T Knoyle, 57); Y Thomas (D Murphy, 58), D Dawidiuk (H Edmonds, 45), S Puafisi (S Knight, 62); E Stooke, J Hudson (T Hicks, 74); M Cox (S Kalamafoni, 50), M Kvesic, G Evans (B Morgan, 50).
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, T O’Donnell (CJ Stander, 74), J Coughlan.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).
Munster’s defensive effort in the first 10 minutes after half-time was critical to their win. Gloucester got themselves back in the game with a try just before half-time and threw everything at the visitors after the break only for their siege of the Reds’ line to fail to render a single point.
Paul O’Connell was man of the match after another authoritative performance while Ian Keatley’s rebound from a dismal performance against Ulster was a tribute to a strong character, his kicking form and game management excellent in the circumstances.
Munster’s travelling fans never cease to surprise with their commitment to the cause and they neutralised the potentially hostile Kingsholm in marvellous fashion, even occupying the Gloucester fan’s famous Shed side.
Welsh referee Leighton Hodges incensed Gloucester coach Nigel Davies at times with his interpretation of both the breakdown and scrum, two ares Munster dominated.
Gloucester 8 Munster 9
With only a bout of cramp for Keith Earls in the debit column, Munster had the rare luxury of enjoying good news fitness-wise, with Conor Murray getting through 80 minutes in his first match for five weeks and Simon Zebo getting game time off the bench after a 12-week absence.
“We beat Perpignan away, we’ve won here away. 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.” — Munster head coach Rob Penney on the likelihood of an away draw for the quarter-finals.
With a quarter-final secure Munster play Edinburgh at Thomond Park next Sunday to round out the pool stage. Playing late in the weekend means they know if results have gone their way.