Gloucester Rugby: Battling Gloucester lose to Munster
BRITISH Lions and Ireland totem Paul O'Connell powered round the corner into midfield at his Thomond Park stomping ground.
The day before his 34th birthday, the evergreen lock thundered into centre-field, buoyed by the fervent home support.
Hell-bent on inciting a Munster riot against the Cherry and Whites, the 85-cap Ireland second-row spotted what he thought was a gap, and pounded straight for it.
Ryan Mills had other ideas.
Gloucester's 21-year-old centre lined up the warhorse lock, who embodies all that is good about the likeable but deadly Munstermen – and promptly dumped him on his backside.
Just one tackle of course, but a tackle to underscore Mills' midfield muscle – and Gloucester's desperation not to be overawed in one of rugby's most terrifying citadels.
Few places have the Gloucester faithful in awe, but this great Irish cathedral probably tops that list.
The Fields of Athenry rings around the packed stands, tickling hairs on necks on those watching on TV, let alone the lucky crop inside the ground.
It always pumps Munster up to the extreme, and their onslaught from the off was fulsome and fulminating.
Some suggested Nigel Davies had sent a second team into battle.
Tell that to Mills, who showed effortless class and time on the ball to add to that midfield bite, or to Rupert Harden, who excelled at the scrum.
Tell that to Matt Cox, gutted to leave the fray at the break with bruising on the bone in his leg.
And tell that to resolute captain on the night Will James, Gloucester's squadfather himself racking up 150 club appearances – and matching Munster's lock pair of O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan.
Gloucester dealt with Munster's rage at their previous week's defeat in Edinburgh.
The hosts spat fire and brimstone, tore strips off each other and then tore into the Cherry and Whites defence for a full 15 minutes.
Conceding penalties under such duress was a given – but Gloucester refused to buckle.
Denying the Munstermen a try in that first quarter-hour was hugely creditable from Davies' men.
And then Dan Robson and Charlie Sharples struck.
Gloucester's water-tight lineout drive forced Munster to their own line.
The Cherry and Whites' set up was so good it created just a chink in Munster's blindside armour.
Scrum-half Robson knew it was there, whipped round to leave Conor Murray motionless – and send Sharples flying into the corner.
This was Gloucester's chance: if the visitors were to contend seriously for victory, they had to strike again while upping the ante.
Davies' men came again, they forced onto the front foot and worked Munster into a promising defensive position in the hosts' 22.
Gloucester set their platform deep in Munster territory on the left flank.
The ball would fly back right, and one incisive midfield moment would create the space for a try in the corner.
How Gloucester missed that magician James Simpson-Daniel in this instance.
This was the one time in the night where Davies' bold selection plan showed a hole.
Sinbad's ability to cut midfield angles like no other could well have unlocked the home defence here.
Instead Mike Tindall dallied when he should have passed on – and was turned over in the tackle. Munster sensed the turning point and plundered the initiative.
Prop BJ Botha burrowed home from a lineout drive, before Gloucester debutant Jonny Bentley slotted a penalty.
Davies' charges merited at least their 16-10 deficit at the break.
Sprightly Robson produced a try-saving tackle after the turnaround to deny Munster in the move of the match.
Wing Keith Earls raced down the right flank, fed Johne Murphy inside, and he palmed off to the onrushing Murray.
Simple but brutally effective, the pace and panache caught Gloucester out – save for Robson, who swept Murray to ground, dislodging the ball in the process.
Ominous no doubt, but still Gloucester refused to bow to home will.
Keatley landed his fourth penalty to edge the hosts nine points ahead.
And then came the denouement, amid huge ire from the travellers.
Rob Cook misjudged the swirl on a high ball and rose too soon.
His rare error notwithstanding, the full-back was upended in mid-air.
Gloucester's incensed players stopped dead – and Munster struck.
Murray's quick tap caught the visitors off guard, and in a flash Keatley's crossfield chip sent Murphy cantering home unopposed.
And that was that: resolute in defence, Gloucester can be proud.
But Davies was right when he said his side lacked the cutting attacking edge to warrant the win.
Above all the varied plus points of this gritty effort though, stands Gloucester's scrum – and cornerstone Rupert Harden.
When Harden was substituted after just 38 minutes in Gloucester's 29-12 home defeat to Exeter, the Cherry and Whites hit their scrummage nadir.
The 28-year-old tighthead was withdrawn that day to stop the Chiefs turning the screw and forcing a yellow card.
It will have hit more than mere pride.
Gloucester's collective scrum psyche took a big jolt in that Premiership shaming.
But after a steady set-piece offering in 27-22 Perpignan victory, the Cherry and Whites bossed the scrummage against the brutes and technicians of this Munster side. Dan Murphy and Darren Dawidiuk were resolute and captain James and Lokotui provided vital ballast.
But Newcastle University graduate Harden produced a redemption beyond any reasonable measure.
Time to take that platform and turn it into a Premiership springboard; starting at Bath on Friday night.