The notion that Munster are the best team in Europe might amuse a few folk down Toulouse way, and if you listen carefully you'll hear some quiet scoffing in Lawrence Dallaglio land, but the first official ranking table compiled by the people who run the Heineken Cup gives pride of place to the Limerick hordes. Fact or fantasy? On the one hand, any system that puts a side as half-baked as Biarritz in the top half dozen is discredited almost before it starts. On the other, Munster are a whole lot stronger now than when they won the title in 2006.
Gloucester were forced to acknowledge this painful truth in front of their own adoring supporters – that is to say, those who managed to find their way into a Kingsholm heavily populated by loud and loquacious Irishmen, more than a dozen of whom were evicted, ticketless, from their hiding place in a ladies' loo several hours before kick-off – and they did it publicly. Dean Ryan, their head coach, described Munster's game as "perfectly set up for European rugby", adding: "There comes a time when you have to give the opposition some credit."
Privately, the Big Bad Wolf was less inclined to dish out the compliments. He felt the Munster midfield got away with blue murder on the offside front and he had a point: either the visiting backs were the fastest group of straight-line sprinters seen since the chemically-charged 100 metres final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics or Nigel Owens, the international referee from Wales, allowed them to take more liberties than a dodgy timeshare salesman. Faced with tackling as instantaneous as it was aggressive, Gloucester found it impossible to strike the rhythm their high-risk, cutting-edge style demanded.
But there was more, far more, to Munster than some questionable big-hit tackles in open field.
Comprehensively out-scrummaged by Nick Wood and Carlos Nieto, to the extent that the overmatched prop Tony Buckley was withdrawn from the fray a mere 33 minutes in, they made up for their set-piece deficiencies by overwhelming their opponents in the loose. Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy were utterly ruthless in their pursuit of turnover ball; Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, the two locks, were never more than a few yards behind them, no matter how far and wide their back-row colleagues roamed. The days of dyed-in-the-wool second-rowers traipsing up and down the middle of the pitch in the hope of stumbling across the ball once in a blue moon have gone for good.
Declan Kidney, the Munster coach, introduced a couple of youngsters to the starting combination: Denis Hurley, the full-back, and Tomas O'Leary, the scrum-half. Kidney did not exactly shower them with praise – Hurley, he said, "performed nicely", while O'Leary, selected ahead of the more familiar Peter Stringer, "did OK". Congratulated on his insight in making the change at No 9, he said: "Who knows? We might have won by more if I'd picked Peter."
He was selling himself short, by many a long mile. O'Leary was sharper and more threatening than his opposite number, Rory Lawson, and when Ryan threw on a second international half-back in Gareth Cooper early in the final quarter, it did not make one iota of difference. Hurley also did his bit, sliding an intelligent kick towards the right corner for Doug Howlett to score the wrap-up try on 64 minutes. Like most of Munster's moments it started with a Gloucester fumble, but the try still needed some scoring, and the execution was a model of precision.
Not that it was a patch on the Irish province's first-half score – a try they could not have imagined constructing before the injection of some southern hemisphere sparkle to their back-line mix. Having withstood some 10 minutes of pressure at the set-piece, they found a way out of their own 22 when Quinlan pilfered the ball on the floor and Ian Dowling was worked clear on the left. O'Connell and Wallace were heavily involved, as were Howlett and the impressive centre Rua Tipoki, and the continuity work bore fruit when Dowling, now on the right, was presented with a clear run to the corner.
It put Munster eight points ahead – very nearly a winning lead on an occasion such as this, especially as Chris Paterson, so punishingly accurate with the boot for Scotland, was missing easy-meat kicks for a pastime. Twice, he lined up early shots in front of the sticks; twice, he miscued from no more than 25 metres. When he fluffed a third from a wider angle a short while later, Gloucester knew they were on a loser.
The Irishmen are difficult enough to beat when God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. When your goalkicker disappears into his own private hell, victory will never be an option.
Gloucester: Penalty Lamb. Munster: Tries Dowling, Howlett; Penalties O'Gara 2.
Gloucester: O Morgan; C Paterson (W Walker, 57), J Simpson-Daniel, A Allen (M Tindall, 40), L Vainikolo; R Lamb, R Lawson (G Cooper, 66); N Wood (A Dickinson, 66), A Titterrell (J Paul, 55-62), C Nieto, M Bortolami (capt; W James, 55), A Brown, P Buxton (G Delve, 39-40; 50), A Hazell, L Narraway.
Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, R Tipoki, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; A Buckley (F Pucciariello, 33-70), J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Wallace (M O'Driscoll, 80), D Leamy (A Foley, 76).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content