Only Limerick. If Thomond Park was the home of the Heineken Cup, you may as well hand it to Munster, complete with a red ribbon, for safekeeping. They put up a plaque here when the All Blacks were famously defeated in 1978, a result that was also translated into a West End play. Yesterday's astonishing events warrant nothing less.
To all the world, at least the world outside Limerick, Munster's cause in Pool Two looked dead and buried. For starters they needed four tries and a significant points difference to reach the quarter-finals. And they needed to do it against Gloucester, the pride of England, who have dominated the Zurich Premiership all season and who had outplayed Munster by a West Country mile at Kingsholm.
On that occasion Munster barely knew what hit them but scored a last-minute try which at the time seemed of little relevance. Now it is worth its weight in gold.
When, in the 80th minute here, the Munster right wing John Kelly scored his second and his side's fourth try, it seemed that about 14,000 people had in an instant become graduates of applied mathematics. Although Munster finished level in their group with Gloucester on eight points, the Irish province qualified for the quarter-finals by virtue of a greater points difference in the results of the two matches between the teams. The upshot is that while Perpignan finished top of the Pool, Munster go into the last eight as one of the best runners-up.
Gloucester are out, their hopes of success in Europe destroyed by the fire and controlled ferocity of a seemingly irresistible red tide. Munster have taken to the Heineken with a passion that is almost tangible and having reached the last eight on five successive occasions and narrowly lost two finals, they were in no mood to leave the stage quietly. And what a theatre of dreams Thomond Park is.
When Gloucester kicked off to start the drama the resident cheerleader was still in the throes of Carmen, the one about stand up and fight, fight like men. Munster had already taken the message to heart but then they had never needed the assistance of Bizet to raise their game, not at this ground, where they had never lost a Heineken Cup match.
They never looked like losing yesterday but the most crucial point, of course, was whether they could score enough tries and win by a suitable margin. They applied themselves magnific-ently while Gloucester grad- ually, and then with greater momentum, fell apart.
It was a surprise that it took Ronan O'Gara eight minutes to hoist his first Garry Owen towards the posts where, surprise surprise, Henry Paul made a complete mess of it. It was the beginning of a personal nightmare for Paul, and a collective one for his club.
After O'Gara and Ludovic Mercier had exchanged penalties, Munster got their first try in the 17th minute when Peter Stringer, exposing a cumbersome back row, had time and space to send Kelly over.
Gloucester enjoyed a period of ascendancy but Munster were allowed to lift the siege when Phil Vickery was penalised for stamping. Nevertheless Mercier added a second penalty to make it 8-6 but then the almost fanatical Munster pack drove Gloucester into submission. O'Gara added another penalty and with Paul always vulnerable, Gloucester crumbled.
The timing of Munster's second try, on the stroke of half-time, was almost as vital as their last. Peter Buxton was sent to the sin-bin for bringing down a maul and when Jason Holland chipped to the corner Mossie Lawlor won the race for the touch down.
Leading 16-6 at half-time, Munster raised the onslaught and it required a try-saving tackle from Robert Todd to prevent O'Gara from scoring. However the stand-off, who was becoming more and more influential, kicked a penalty and then, from the touchline, converted a try from Mick O'Driscoll, the veteran having fastened on to an inch-perfect cross-kick from Holland.
Gloucester were in deeper trouble when their hooker Olivier Azam was shown a yellow card in the 68th minute, committing the same offence as Buxton. But even so there was still a glimmer of hope. They won a penalty on almost their first visit to the Munster 22 but then showed just how rattled they were. Instead of kicking for goal – the position would almost have guaranteed Mercier three points – the stand-off instead tapped the ball and, of course, the Cherry and Whites ran into trouble. Those three points would have given Gloucester a two-point advantage in the maths.
Munster still needed another try and it came from an inspired drive.When the ball was re-cycled to the right Kelly was in splendid isolation. O'Gara's conversion, midway between the touchline and the post, never looked like missing, the singing reached full voice and half the crowd ran on to the pitch about a minute later to engulf their heroes, of which Kelly was only one.
Munster: J Staunton; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, M Lawlor; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, M O'Driscoll, D O'Callaghan, J Williams (capt), A Foley, A Quinlan.
Gloucester: H Paul (T Beim, 61); J Simpson-Daniel, T Fanolua, R Todd, T Delport; L Mercier, A Gomarsall; R Roncero, O Azam, P Vickery (capt), R Fidler (A Eustace, 77), M Cornwell, P Buxton (A Hazell, 48), J Paramore, J Boer.
Referee: J Jutge (France).
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