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When Munster pulled off a miracle against Gloucester at Thomond Park

Alan Gaffney’s men were on the brink of a pool-stage exit in the Heineken Cup.

A 23-8 DEFEAT in Perpignan the weekend before had left Munster on the brink of exiting the 2002/03 Heineken Cup.

Finalists twice in the previous three seasons, the southern province were staring down the barrel of a disappointing pool-stage exit.

Gloucester, flying high in the Premiership that season, came to Thomond Park confident of sealing their own quarter-final spot in Europe and also inflicting Munster’s first defeat at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup.

john-kelly John Kelly celebrates his second try for Munster. Source: ©INPHO

To get through, Munster would need to beat Gloucester by four tries and with 27-point winning margin, or by five clear tries. Anything less and Alan Gaffney’s men were out.

Bizarrely, Munster themselves hadn’t considered the permutations. All that mattered was fronting up with pride at home against Gloucester and sending them back to England with their tails between their legs.

What followed remains one of the most memorable Munster wins in their history. It’s the game that we discussed on last week’s episode of the ‘Playback’ series on The42 Rugby Weekly Extra podcast, which is available to members of The42.

On the latest episode today, we dig into Connacht’s momentous 2013 win away to Toulouse in the Heineken Cup.

Munster’s remarkable 33-6 victory over Gloucester back on 18 January 2013 goes down as one of the great days in Irish provincial rugby history.

MUNSTER: Jeremy Staunton; John Kelly, Mike Mullins, Jason Holland, Mossy Lawlor; Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer; Marcus Horan, Frankie Sheahan, John Hayes; Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll; Jim Williams (captain), Alan Quinlan, Anthony Foley.

The visiting Gloucester team was captained by England prop Phil Vickery.

GLOUCESTER: Henry Paul; James Simpson-Daniel, Terry Fanolua, Robert Todd, Thinus Delport; Ludovic Mercier, Andy Gomarsall; Rodrigo Roncero, Olivier Azam, Phil Vickery (captain); Rob Fidler, Mark Cornwall; Peter Buxton, Jake Boer, Junior Paramore.

Former rugby league star Henry Paul’s miserable day began early on as Munster’s Ronan O’Gara launched a swirling garryowen – he later admitted he mishit it – that the stand-in Gloucester fullback failed to deal with.

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With Munster’s centre pairing of Jason Holland and Mike Mullins haring upfield on the chase, Paul allows the ball to bounce and is then swallowed up, throwing a loose offload before Gloucester give up a penalty for failing to roll away.

O’Gara strokes over the opening penalty and Paul has got a sense of the nightmare ahead of him.

Ludovic Mercier did soon equalise for Gloucester with a penalty of his own, but Munster became increasingly dominant.

A searing linebreak from Mike Mullins off a clever lineout attack ended with Anthony Foley being held up over the tryline, but Munster kept the pressure on at the ensuing series of scrums. They earned a penalty but opted to scrum again, getting their reward in the 19th minute with a cleverly-taken try for right wing John Kelly.

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It’s excellent work from scrum-half Peter Stringer, who had already attempted something similar at an earlier scrum further out the pitch.

As highlighted in white below, Gloucester scrum-half Andy Gomarsall defends up on the right-hand side of their scrum, leaving Stringer free to snipe into the shortside.

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Stringer’s pace off the mark is important in a score that somewhat foreshadows what he will do against Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final three years later.

In this instance, similarly to 2006, the threat of the Munster scrum means the Gloucester back row are slow to break [yellow below] and are playing catch-up to Stringer.

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Stringer’s running threat forces Gloucester left wing Thinus Delport to hesitate, turning his shoulders in [white above] towards the Munster scrum-half, who fires his pass to Kelly to give his wing enough time and space to finish in the corner.

Gloucester responded well and had pressure down in the Munster 22, but Gaffney’s men fought hard to prevent a try.

Mercier did, however, add a second penalty but another three points from O’Gara had Munster 11-6 in front coming towards the half-time break. More torture for Gloucester fullback Paul preceded the second Munster try. 

First, a clever grubber down the left from Mullins allowed himself, Foley, and Mossy Lawlor to hammer Paul into touch. Barely a minute later, O’Gara’s clever cross-kick forced Paul to nudge the bouncing ball into touch himself.

Paul

Paul looked bemused at the onslaught and Munster kept their foot on the Gloucester throats from the five-metre lineout.

Their first maul surge saw Gloucester blindside Peter Buxton yellow-carded for collapsing, then Munster cleverly grabbed a score with penalty advantage playing in the next passage.

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It’s an intelligent and delicately-executed grubber kick from centre Holland, with the Kiwi midfielder’s performance in this game underlining why he was always likely to move into coaching. He’s now boss of the Hurricanes in Super Rugby.

Holland threads his kick into the in-goal area and left wing Lawlor reads his intentions intuitively, racing forward and just about managing to finish before the ball reaches the touch-in-goal line.

The try leaves Munster 16-6 up at the break and though they still seem unclear about what exactly they need to go through, they’re well positioned.

The home side frustratingly leave the Gloucester 22 empty-handed twice in the third quarter, but then another O’Gara bomb over Paul results in a penalty, as the England international simply fails to catch the high ball.

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Gloucester knock-on in the panic that ensues and a Munster penalty follows from the scrum.

With Munster seemingly unaware of the need for two more tries, O’Gara knocks over the penalty for 19-6.

O’Gara follows his penalty with two sublime kicks from hand, first spiralling a clearance past Paul and into touch down the left, then firing a low touchfinder deep into the right corner and leaving Gloucester in a nasty position five metres from their own line.

They duly fail to clear their lines with composure, inviting Munster back on a counter-attack that ends with their third try. Again, Holland cleverly uses the penalty advantage to provide the assist.

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Second row Mick O’Driscoll gets his reward for holding the width out on the right as Holland uses the diagonal kick pass to find him.

Funnily enough, the Hurricanes have been one of the best teams in the world for kick passing in recent years.

Despite Delport screaming as he runs forward on his charge-down attempt, O’Gara nails the conversion from the right-hand touchline and Munster have a 20-point lead at 26-6.

There is still a quarter of the game left and it’s becoming increasingly clear to most people that Munster are potentially onto a winner here – even if many of the players on the pitch are still uncertain what is required.

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Gloucester suffer a blow with the loss of hooker Olivier Azam to the sin bin for coming in at the side of a Munster maul. The English side – also apparently very unclear about the permutations – begin to lose all composure.

With around 10 minutes of the game left, they win a penalty down in the Munster 22 but Mercier quick-taps it rather than slotting the points. A brilliant turnover penalty earned by Donncha O’Callaghan at the breakdown lifts the pressure on Munster.

Jeremy Staunton soon makes a break but Gloucester cling on. With crucial seconds ticking away, Gloucester openside Jake Boer is caught offside. It’s unclear exactly how long is left in the game, with no match clock inside the stadium. 

Referee Joel Jutge seems to say, “two minutes” and Munster opt to kick down the left-hand touchline. 

From there, they produce a brilliant fourth try.

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It starts with the lineout above, hooker Frankie Sheahan hitting O’Callaghan right at the tail in what was, overall, a sensational performance from the Munster lineout in this game.

Foley arrives to accept the transfer from O’Callaghan and it appears Munster will maul there, but instead the number eight spins and drops the ball off to Stringer, who delivers it to O’Gara and the out-half finds Holland.

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Holland immediately turns to present the ball back towards his team-mates, with Mullins  arriving and then Jim Williams, O’Driscoll, and O’Callaghan the first of the Munster forwards to join.

With Mercier looking disinterested, Munster’s swiftly-formed maul thunders forward to within a metre of the tryline, belatedly soaking in Gloucester defenders as they try to stop it.

It collapses a metre short but Stringer reacts swiftly to flick the ball away to Staunton…

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… and though the fullback is halted, O’Callaghan crucially gets to the breakdown, allowing Stringer to fire off a second pass to his right, where O’Gara can send Kelly over for his second score.

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Hooker Sheahan said later that the midfield maul was a move Munster had in their playbook for years but that it hadn’t ever worked before. 

The Springboks utilised something very similar in the 2019 World Cup final, more than 16 years on from this great day in Thomond Park.

Munster still required the conversion to seal their place in the quarter-finals, of course, although captain Williams said afterwards that “myself and Ronan were probably the only two guys that didn’t know we needed that last kick at goal.”

From the right-hand 15-metre line, O’Gara nailed his conversion and Munster had their 27-point winning margin.

All that was left was for O’Callaghan to take the restart and O’Gara to kick the ball out over the touchline.

Cue manic celebrations. 

On today’s episode of The42 Rugby Weekly Extra, we turn our attention towards Connacht’s Heineken Cup win away to Toulouse in 2013.

The shock victory came in Pat Lam’s first season in charge of the province and helped to set them on course towards their eventual Pro12 glory in 2016. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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