Munster reclaimed their grip on Pool 2 and took a giant step towards an 18th European quarter-final as they claimed a bonus-point Heineken Champions Cup win over Gloucester with a stunning performance at Kingsholm.
In front of a sell-out 16,115 crowd which generated an electric atmosphere in the English midlands, Munster delivered their finest away performance in quite some time, fly-half Joey Carbery stealing the show with the first and last of five tries and getting a perfect return from his two penalties and five conversions for a 26-point haul.
The only concern was an apparent rib injury for captain Peter O’Mahony, forced from the field after 46 minutes, his obvious discomfort sure to cause anxiety for Ireland head coach three weeks out from the Six Nations opener against England in Dublin on February 2.
Yet this was otherwise a night of pure Munster joy. They had gone into round five having seen their pool lead cut to three points after defeat in Castres last month with all four teams in the group separated by just four points. Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s clash at Sandy Park between Exeter Chiefs and Castres, Munster will welcome Exeter to Thomond Park next Saturday most likely needing just a losing bonus point from the final-round game.
Gloucester got off to a strong start in a frenzied opening quarter, the die cast when former Munster lock Gerbrandt Grobler soared through the sky to claim Danny Cipriani’s kick-off. Yet despite conceding a 13th-minute penalty, taken from long-range by Billy Twelvetree, Munster slowly took control of this contest.
They were dominating the scrum, referee Romain Poite penalising the home pack three times at the set-piece, while the Gloucester back three was being caused all sorts of problems holding on to Conor Murray’s box kicks. It was breathless stuff for long periods of the opening half but as Munster began to take command of territory, Gloucester’s error count increased and when flanker Lewis Ludlow strayed offside in his attempts to cut the Murray supply line off at the source, Joey Carbery kicked the visitors onto the scoreboard after 20 minutes.
That sparked a more dominant Munster period of play as van Graan’s men retained the ball brilliantly and were rewarded with their first try just four minutes later, a long spell of possession inside the home 22 stretching Gloucester’s line and allowing Murray to send a skip pass to fly-half Carbery who ran in unopposed for the opening Munster try from five metres out. His conversion was followed by a penalty shortly after to put Munster 13-3 in front after 26 minutes.
Despite the return to action of England fly-half Danny Cipriani, Gloucester looked bereft of ideas in attack and rarely found a way into the Munster 22.
While Gloucester huffed and puffed, Munster tightened their grip on this match and when Murray sent up another kick with half-time approaching, full-back Tom Hudson spilled the ball again and the visitors found another bridgehead in a threatening position with less than a minute to go to the interval.
A strong scrum launched Murray off the back down the blindside and after a series of telling carries, Rory Scannell injected some extra pace, shook off a Charlie Sharples tackle and dashed through the gap and over the line.
Carbery’s conversion ended the half with Munster in charge at 20-3 but Gloucester were handed an instant route back into the game when the fly-half failed to send the second-half kick-off the required 10 metres. The resulting Gloucester scrum on halfway earned a penalty which Cipriani sent into the left corner and from there Munster were truly on the back foot.
A string of penalties kept the home side in their 22 and also cost them the services of O’Mahony, who left the field having hurt his ribs during a sterling defensive set. He eventually succumbed to his pain and so did Munster, holding out through a remarkable 35 phases before Ollie Thorley finally breached the defensive line in the 52nd minute.
Cipriani missed the wide conversion and Munster doubled down by going up the other end and scoring almost immediately off a scrum inside the Gloucester 22, O’Mahony’s replacement Billy Holland made the telling offload in the left corner, putting in Keith Earls for the try with Carbery’s touchline conversion pushing the lead to 27-8.
Munster looked to have wrapped up the bonus point minutes later when Conway kicked ahead and sprinted past full-back Hudson to slide home only for Poite to review the play and spot a knock on from Chris Farrell’s pass forward, which the wing hacked on.
Gloucester promptly went up the other end and scored a try, converted by Twelvetree to keep them in the hunt but Munster finally put the win to bed in scintillating style, Carbery’s delighted grubber kick bouncing up for Conway to get the try he deserved, converted by the fly-half, who then intercepted a Ben Morgan pass on halfway soon after the restart to score a breakaway try under the post, his fifth conversion of the night completing a 26-point haul as Munster regained control of the Pool in the best possible fashion.
Gloucester scorers: Tries: Thorley, Balmain. Cons: Twelvetrees. Pens: Twelvetrees.
GLOUCESTER: T Hudson; C Sharples, B Twelvetrees (H Trinder, 71), M Atkinson, O Thorley; D Cipriani (O Williams, 68), C Braley (B Vellacott, 68); J Hohneck (A Seville, 71), H Walker (F Marais, 71), F Balmain; E Slater, G Grobler (F Clarke, 58); F Mostert, L Ludlow, B Morgan - captain (G Evans, 71).
Munster scorers: Tries: Carbery 2, R. Scannell, Earls, Conway. Cons: Carbery 5. Pens: Carbery 2.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell (D Goggin, 68), R Scannell, K Earls; J Carbery (T Bleyendaal, 71), C Murray (A Mathewson, 68); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 60) , N Scannell (R Marshall, 71) , S Archer (J Ryan, 58); J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain (B Holland, 46), T O’Donnell (A Botha, 58), CJ Stander.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
European Rugby Challenge Cup, Pool 1: Dragons 59 Timisoara Saracens 3
European Rugby Challenge Cup, Pool 2: Stade Francais 35 Pau 14
European Rugby Challenge Cup, Pool 3: Perpignan 27 Bordeaux-Begles 34
European Rugby Challenge Cup, Pool 4: La Rochelle 32 Zebre 12