You can’t really talk about Munster vs Gloucester in Thomond Park without mentioning The Miracle Match.
As far as formative pillars of the Munster Mythos go, you can’t get any bigger than that game. Even calling it a “game” takes away some of the magic. It was a movie, played out in reality. So, like, a play, but without a script and played out in front of thousands of raucous Munster fans.
You know the plot off by heart at this stage.
Very few, all but the most ardent Munster believers, thought that we had much of a chance of beating England’s then top club by four tries and 27 points. It was fantasy stuff. A thing of drunken dreams of glory. That was the scale of the margin that Munster needed to qualify from the pools in 2003 and it might as well have been 5000 points and one of them had to be a try scored by a John Hayes intercept from the Munster 22. Yet somehow, in circumstances that play out like a fever dream even when watching the game back on Youtube – go do that after you’re finished here – Munster managed to get the exact margin they needed to qualify with Ronan O’Gara adding the familiar finish at the death.
It was unbelievable. It was amazing. It defied belief. And I suspect that the Munster that we know and love today might not be the commercial and cultural juggernaut that they are without that miracle match under their collective belts. It added to the belief that Munster, like a monster from a horror movie, were never quite finished and would always, always, shoot their hand out of the grave right as the credits rolled.
This weekend, Gloucester rock up to Thomond Park again. This time, without any insane mathematics to consider, it should be a little more straightforward but we have important business to settle nonetheless.
Last week’s draw away to Exeter was a low-key killer result in the context of this pool. If we assume that neither Gloucester or Castres will leave Sandy Park with any more than a losing bonus point – a fair assumption at the moment – then that leaves Munster in position to boss this pool as long as they win all their home games. Five pointers are better, obviously, but even four regular home wins puts Munster at 14 points before considering trips to Castres and Gloucester. Any win in either of those two games puts Munster on 18 points, which is usually enough to qualify as pool winners. Exeter, who I still fancy as Munster’s chief opposition (no pun intended) in this pool, will have to pick up two away wins to make up for the lost two points at home if Munster win all of their home games.
Munster don’t need a miracle match but a five-pointer would be extremely handy, if at all possible.
Let’s have a look at the sides;
I’ll go into these teams in detail on the Blood & Thunder Podcast.
The Red Eye Report: Gloucester
An “A” would be considered top class by Champions Cup standards, a “B” would be considered good by regular Champions Cup standard, a “C” would be considered decent by PRO14 level, a “D” would be considered below par by PRO14 standards and an “E” would be something I’d consider an exploitable weakness.
Offensive Scrummaging – C
Defensive Scrummaging – C
Attacking Lineout – C
Defensive Lineout – C
Offensive Maul – C
Defensive Maul – C
Defensive Structure – B
Phase Play Power – C
Attacking Creativity – A
Structured Attack Off Set Piece – B
Structured Defence Off Set Piece – D
Overall Fitness – C
Kicking – C
Back Three Kick Positioning – C
You know, it’s an awful cooincidence that Johann Ackermann should move to Gloucester from the Lions in South Africa, take his son with him, and then lift three more players (Dreyer, Mostert and Kriel) from the Lions only to then find that Gloucester themselves are changing their name to the Lions. It feels like synergy.
Ackermann is looking to create a high tempo, high impact style of rugby in Gloucester and he’s following the template he created in Johannesburg to do it. The only problem is, right now he doesn’t have the players to do it fully. That can be seen in the selections he’s gone for in this game. Don’t get me wrong, Gloucester have played some lovely stuff at times this season, but they are a bit off the finished product that Ackermann is looking to create, I think. The impending arrivals of Ruan Dreyer, Franco Mostert and the reregistration of Jaco Kriel will help build on what they have quite a bit, as will the type of silky game that Danny Cirpriani specialises, but this looks like a Gloucester that are transitioning from what they were to what they will be later in this season and beyond.
Ackermann’s selection for this game seems largely forced by the injury trouble he has in the forwards. His decision to drop Grobler – his most athletically gifted forward – to the bench instead of the reliable workhorse Ed Slater will give you an idea of what Ackermann expects from this game, at least from the start.
He seems to have loaded his team to cope with a physical onslaught initially with scope to expand later in the game if things go their way on the scoreboard.
If things are to go their way, it’ll mostly be through the direction of Danny Cipriani. Cipriani is a tough player to work out in that his mercurial tag is often misplaced. Cipriani doesn’t really do polar extremes of brilliant/awful like you’d expect from the tag he gets labelled with. When Cipriani is playing poorly, he’s a complete non-factor in the game, as if he wasn’t even there. You might not see a massive howler from him – even though he has more than a few kicks out on the full in his locker – but you’ll rarely see him put a stamp on a game that his pack are losing.
In that regard, Munster dominating possession is a huge factor in this game. When Gloucester have a lot of possession, they feed off Cipriani’s work with the ball on the gain line. Look at this moment here;
That staccato step to the gain line and pull back are a key part of Cipriani’s game. That left foot step/plant and pass away are a partial feint to his left-footed kicking game, which has a very similar shape in a very similar position on the gain line.
When it comes to selling that particular gimmick, he’s something of an expert in all conditions. Whenever you look at Gloucester surging on the outside channels, it’s usually because of Cipriani stunting a blitz with his step and pull back to find the Gloucester runners in space.
How do you stop it? The best way is to starve Gloucester of possession so that Cipriani’s touches have a higher premium – that way he can be pressured. Good line speed off the ruck directly into Cipriani’s space is a good place to start. Saracens did this to great effect in their 38-15 win in Allianz Park and they forced Cipriani into more contact than he likes with ball in hand.
Watch his movements off this big carry from Morgan off a wide ruck;
He drifts onto the second phase before passing way behind the gain line and shipping the ball on without adding any value. Castres took the space from him and edge out his decoys so Cipriani did his usual step and pull but it lost Gloucester ground and saw them get swallowed up in the outside channels.
Cipriani also tends to make it pretty obvious when he’s not an option off a screen move with his distance from the forward pod and his lack of animation.
That can make defending the heavy screen that little bit easier knowing that the pass isn’t going beyond those three initial carriers.
Gloucester look a little one-paced in the outside backs outside #12, and their selection of Banahan points at a very direct approach off the set-piece and what they think is a perceived mismatch with our wingers in Sweetnam and Conway. Goggin will have a lot of responsibility here, as will Haley, as they are our most physical defenders on the edges.
Both Twelvetrees and Banahan can be got at with angled kicks along the floor and over their shoulder. Expect Goggin, Scannell and Carbery to go at this early and often.
Gloucester are a little vulnerable on transition, of both the kick and breakdown variety. When they box kick, they have a tendency to overload their forwards to elongate the ruck and then leave themselves short on the openside.
They have six forwards escorting this box kick and then #9 puts it too long. This is a common enough failing with Gloucester and you can see the opportunities it leaves on the openside if the kick gets claimed with time and space to work with.
You can see a Carbery, Sweetnam and Conway going after that openside alignment like dogs eating a dropped steak.
They also have a tendency to be inaccurate – if physical – at the breakdown on their own ball which is usually an invite for Beirne, Cronin and O’Mahony to go to work as only they can. You’ll often see Gloucester looking to drive beyond the ruck to create space on either side, which is risk/reward when it comes to being penalised but goes some way to explain why sometimes they can get badly caught out in the breakdown – they go beyond the ruck, so a second man often has a good shot at getting a clean steal or a penalty.
In the lineout, Gloucester are pretty decent. Grobler was their primary outlet last week but I’d expect Slater to take that role this week given his experience. I think Gloucester have a bit of an issue with their lifts, especially with Balmain, their tighthead prop. He apparently has a bit of chest injury at the moment so it limits his gas on certain full man lineout plays. They have a few four-man options that they used against Castres but none involved their props.
You’d think they’d want to get Morgan – a big ball carrier for them alongside Polledri – into midfield on this one but instead they went to a pod of Balmain, Hohneck and Polledri. If they’re hiding Balmain, it’ll become obvious pretty quickly with the pace Munster go at into the air.
I noticed that Gloucester are a little prone to getting scrambled in their defensive lines at the lineout too.
These are two of a few occasions where Gloucester got muddled on the floor and went after balls in the air that they had no right to. You suspect just a small bit of movement would take them out of their comfort zone, especially if we jump at Balmain’s position – he didn’t lift in the first one, and barely got any acceleration on Clarke – their primary front counter jumper – on the second. Expect a lot of O’Mahony feinting out early to trigger their jumpers before counter-mauling into the space.
In the maul, Gloucester like a big aggressive counter-shove up the middle of the maul. You can see Savage (#4) and Clarke (#6) tearing into this one early but, in doing so, leaving Castres room to peel.
If Castres had let this move for a bit there was a collapsing penalty in it for them. You can see that aggressive shove getting peeled around here, too.
This is an example of how they can pressurise a short “stingray” maul with that strong shove up the middle. Grobler is especially good at this aspect of the game with his long wingspan.
We’ll have to make sure our builds are long, quick and surge into the space left by their counter-jumper. Castres weren’t secure at the front in the above example and Savage almost got a clean sack and a turnover from it. If Munster can stem that initial surge, there are gains off either side.
I think we can get Gloucester in the scrum but, as ever, it depends on how it’s refereed. We should get a few handy ones given we’re at home but you’d never know with the lottery these days.
In attack, I think there’s the obvious hit-up on Cipriani, as he often defends relatively close to the ruck. A centre-field ruck is the best way to get at Cipriani, as he often defends the edge there rather than drop into the backfield. I would look to target Gloucester at “C” as they can be a little dog-leggy there and overreliant on Polledri to make a statement hit in space. They’re vulnerable in the first three phases of a lineout as their pack struggle to get into position so expect Munster to go after that defensive reset with two hits in and back after a lineout. Cipriani is someone we can go after in the lineout but he’s far from the “coward” that Luke Fitzgerald branded him as. Cipriani isn’t a great tackler but he’s won’t become a swinging turnstile unless we can consistently target his channel and force Gloucester to narrow in on him. If we can do that, we can attack the space that creates outside Twelvetrees and Atkinson. It’ll be the same off the scrum if we can get the angle we need and Stander attacking that space at 10/12.
Ultimately, this result comes down to mentality. If Munster bring the scrap and intensity to Gloucester, we can win this game relatively comfortably. Can Gloucester handle the pressure cooker like Racing did at this time last season? If they can’t, Munster won’t need a miracle to get four tries – they’ll just need patience and execution.