Another red letter day for Munster. A first win in three visits to Kingsholm, which was as much about their iron-clad defence as their clinical attack, earned them their seventh Heineken Cup semi-final appearance in nine years. Cardiff in May has a certain ring to it?
Man-of-the-match Rua Tipoki summed it up best when he dubbed it ‘a rollercoaster ride.’ Not even the most fervent of Munster fans could have envisaged their side exerting so much control, after they spent the opening 12 minutes in their own half.
Starved of possession, Declan Kidney’s men came under a wave of early pressure but they were equal to anything the Guinness Premiership leaders could throw at them, including a pumped-up-to-the-gills Lesley Vainikolo.
Munster’s cause was aided by three missed penalty kicks by Chris Paterson, with the usually reliable Scotland place-kicker firing wide of the uprights after 1, 7 and 18 minutes.
The province, lining out in a record tenth quarter-final, brought a Test-like intensity to the game that Gloucester just could not deal with.
Kidney had to tweak his line-up before kick-off after prop Marcus Horan suffered a back spasm in the warm-up. His Ireland colleague Tony Buckley took his place on the loosehead side of the scrum, with Federico Pucciariello added to the bench.
Paterson’s misses did not derail Gloucester but they did dent their confidence slightly, especially after their prop Carlos Nieto was sin-binned for not rolling away in the tackle and Ronan O’Gara stepped up to boot Munster into a 15th-minute lead.
Munster ‘boxed’ clever and it paid off. Crowding the breakdown area where Gloucester were lacking in numbers, Munster won a mammoth 12 turnovers and made life hell for home scrum half Rory Lawson.
The wily Alan Quinlan and company excelled in this area and in midfield, the ever-improving centre partnership of Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi gave very little away.
While Nieto was off, Munster failed to score and Paterson pulled his third kick wide. But having lived off scraps, Munster were able to break out and snuff out the game’s first try, just before half-time.
Ryan Lamb and Andy Hazell did combine to bring the Cherry and Whites up close to the Munster try line, but the visitors’ defence was strong and they launch a rapier-like thrust.
The build-up for Ian Dowling’s 37th-minute try began with a long pass across the Munster posts and was finished after some of the best phase-building of the season.
Just as they had done in previous European games against Llanelli and Wasps, Munster exerted great control around the fringes, battering their opponents into submission and drawing in defenders. And Pucciariello had an immediate effect on the scrum when he came on for Buckley.
Dowling was the player to take Munster into Gloucester territory with a good initial break. Then the province’s back five came into play, with David Wallace and Denis Leamy sucking in defenders with some big carries.
The space was finally created for Doug Howlett to delay his pass sufficiently and send his fellow winger, Kilkenny man Dowling, over for a simple run-in.
O’Gara was narrowly wide with his conversion attempt, leaving Munster 8-0 ahead at half-time and some decent momentum behind them.
It was heartening to see England centre Mike Tindall on the pitch before the break. Having made an incredibly quick recovery after the lung and liver injuries he sustained during the Six Nations, Tindall’s appearance drew approval from the famed ‘Shed.’
Munster absorbed some early pressure on the resumption, with the influential Mafi halting a Gloucester attack with a shuddering hit on Andy Titterrell.
There were little moments all over the pitch where Munster were coming out on top. Howlett then did brilliantly to chase his own kick and pin Gloucester back near their try line with Olly Morgan giving away a large chunk of field position.
Then, in the 49th-minute, Gloucester prop Nick Wood was pinged for killing Munster ball at a ruck and O’Gara landed his second penalty of the evening for an 11-0 lead.
Gloucester never gave up and Tindall and James Simpson-Daniel pressed and probed, with the latter slicing through only for Howlett to stop his pass from getting to Vainikolo.
The English side needed a break but they were not getting it. Munster fans roared their approval when Paul O’Connell stole Jeremy Paul’s first lineout throw after the Australian hooker had been introduced.
A very solid scrum and the attacking prowess of Lamb and Simpson-Daniel were keep Gloucester in the game but their heads dropped when Howlett went over for a 62nd-minute try.
Heineken Cup debutant Denis Hurley laid the platform for the score, storming his way up the middle on an excellent run.
The young full-back put boot to ball and his well-weighted kick was met by the flying All Black winger who gleefully touched down in the corner.
O’Gara missed the conversion but at 16-0 down, Gloucester had a mountain to climb.
Out-half Lamb, kicking in the absence of Paterson, was successful with a penalty kick a few minutes later, yet it was only a consolation score as Munster marched on, with the tournament’s most-capped player Anthony Foley, on as a replacement, steering them home in the wind and rain.
They almost got over for a third try. Howlett raced onto a loose ball close to the Gloucester posts but television match official Derek Bevan ruled that Simpson-Daniel had got to it first.
The win means Munster are now the only team to have won three away quarter-finals in the competition.
They beat Stade Francais at Stade Jean Bouin in 2002 and were winners over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road the following season.
Kidney’s side will be back on the road in three weeks’ time for their semi-final – facing Saracens at the Ricoh Arena after they beat the Ospreys 19-10 in their quarter-final encounter at Vicarage Road. Dates and kick-off times for the semi-finals will be confirmed in due course, with the final set for Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on May 24.
Will it be 2006 revisited for Munster? Get set for another ticket scramble. Heineken Cup semi-final tickets will be on sale here on Sunday from 6pm.