Gloucester 3 Munster 16: Howlett swoops to sink Gloucester

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The Independent Online

The strains of "The Fields of Athenry" floated westwards from London Irish's win in Reading and were taken up by the thousands of Munster fans who stormed the ramparts of Castle Grim. Throw in a winning Grand National jockey from Co Kildare and it was the day of the Irish. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Munster, Europe's great campaigners, were witty and gritty and their jerseys might have been stamped with "been there, done that" on the front. Gloucester suffered so many yips they could be twitching until the Guinness Premiership play-offs, which are now their sole focus.

In a frantic first few minutes Munster conceded two penalties on or near their 22; easy points, we assumed. Gloucester had Chris Paterson, the man with 31 kicks out of 31 in Tests this season: how could he miss? Er, twice, horrendously, to the left of the posts. That's how.

When Gloucester had Carlos Nieto sent to the sin-bin for killing ruck ball and Ronan O'Gara made it 3-0 to Munster, then Paterson missed again from a more difficult angle, it made for an horrific opening 20 minutes or so for the home team.

Gloucester found that after a phase or two they were popping the ball to their back-rowers – Andy Hazell, Pete Buxton and Luke Narraway – in isolated positions. Your heart went out to them for attempting to take on half the west of Ireland – the other half were in the stands – but the brain said these were flawed patterns of play.

By contrast Munster's Kiwi imports in the centres – Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki – were running the kind of repetitive, unspectacular two-yarders which keep defenders back-tracking and cover-tackling. It was more hard work to drain the energy of Hazell and company, who were already so mindful of protecting the slightly lightweight Gloucester midfield.

In added time at the end of the first half, Gloucester's dam burst. Sustained waves moved inexorably into the 22 and, though Tipoki flung a hail-mary of a pass, O'Gara was able to ship it on. Lesley Vainikolo, attempting the interception, had it and lost it in an instant and Doug Howlett sent his fellow wing, Ian Dowling, over on the right.

Half-time had not yet come when Mike Tindall, the England centre who had been out of commission since suffering a bruised liver in the first match of the Six Nations Championship, trotted on to replace Anthony Allen.

Gloucester's scrummage had put Munster under the kosh, with no points to show for it. It got worse when the full-back, Olly Morgan, carried the ball over his line and Munster soon won a penalty. O'Gara kicked it.

All Munster's experience of 10 straight European Cup quarter-finals was brought to bear on Morgan and the fly-half, Ryan Lamb. There had been a bit of useful bosh from Vain-ikolo and dash from James Simpson-Daniel. Gloucester ought to have primed these twin weapons more often. Yet Munster's tackling was of the highest quality.

Gloucester's handling, which might have brought tries in the Premiership – the league they proudly lead – was snuffed out in one supercharged sequence by Jerry Flannery, Mafi and Dowling. And then Munster had Howlett lurking, waiting; the eminent All Black, a try-poacher from his curly locks to his bootlaces, did his stuff after 64 minutes. Will James had not long replaced Gloucester's captain, Marco Bortolami, when the big lock spilled the ball in midfield. Munster went off to the right where Howlett passed inside to Denis Hurley before chasing on to score from the full-back's clever chip.

A successful penalty by Lamb five minutes later was hardly any succour for Gloucester, more a cruel counterpoint to Paterson's profligacy. Munster march on to an away semi-final against Saracens or the Ospreys, in Coventry or Cardiff.

Gloucester: O Morgan; C Paterson (W Walker, 57), J Simpson-Daniel, A Allen (M Tindall, 39), L Vainikolo; R Lamb, R Lawson (G Cooper, 65); N Wood (A Dickinson, 65), A Titterrell (J Paul, 54-62; 80), C Nieto, M Bortolami (capt; W James, 54), A Brown, P Buxton (G Delve, 39-40; 50), L Narraway, A Hazell.

Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, R Tipoki, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; T Buckley (F Pucciariello, 33), J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Leamy (A Foley, 76), D Wallace (M O'Driscoll, 80).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).