Carbery leaves Cipriani in the shade in Munster masterclass
It was billed as the grand return of Danny Cipriani, but the fly-half was left in the shadow of opposite number Joey Carbery, who delivered a 26-point masterclass that all but guaranteed Munster’s passage to the Champions Cup knockout phases.
In doing so they eliminated Gloucester and, in all probability, Exeter from Pool 2, leaving the English challenge resting upon Saracens and Newcastle, who have just a puncher’s chance.
The portents for England’s trip to Dublin for their opening Six Nations match on February 2 also look decidedly gloomy.
Carbery – second choice behind Johnny Sexton, remember – was applauded off by Gloucester’s supporters having contributed two assists and two tries. There were many other Irish performances that were worthy of acclaim. Scrum-half Conor Murray’s box-kicking was a thing of beauty, so too Tadhg Beirne’s disruptive work at the lineout and breakdown.
The only cause for concern was the departure of Peter O’mahony with a rib injury. Munster coach Johann van Graan confirmed that his captain was in some pain and would have a scan on Monday.
Gloucester defended resolutely but they were missing 15 players and it showed. “No excuses, we were second best in every department,” said Ben Morgan, the Gloucester captain. “It wasn’t a good account of ourselves but we have to wear that as a squad.”
Cipriani, who was returning from a month out with a chest injury, had few chances to stamp his influence on proceedings, playing behind a pack who were outplayed at the breakdown and the set piece.
Henry Walker, starting his first Champions Cup match in front of the Shed, had his line-out throws picked apart and Gloucester’s back three treated Murray’s high balls like they were coated in lava. It was another chastening night for Johan Ackermann’s team, who have lost three straight games.
“For me the biggest concern is that we speak a lot off the field and we know where things are going wrong, but it is time to fix it on the field,” Ackermann said. “The answers are on the field. We all can catch ball, we just have to do it.”
Munster’s opening try was a perfect illustration of their strengths, as a Murray box-kick was spilt by full-back Tom Hudson. The visitors won a scrum penalty and kicked to the corner, from where they launched CJ Stander into the gut of the Gloucester defence. Eventually the hole opened for Murray to pick out Carbery, who dived over.
Carbery converted and added a second kick after Beirne won a penalty. Gloucester were just about holding their heads above water, but their moments of respite were rare, as errors, typically from Murray high balls, kept piling up.
In the last play of the half, Munster effectively put the game to bed as they went through 26 phases before Carbery found centre Rory Scannell, who bumped Charlie Sharples before cutting inside and under the posts.
Carbery’s magical touch momentarily deserted him when his second-half kick-off failed to travel 10 metres and Gloucester won a scrum penalty on halfway. That allowed Cipriani to establish field position deep within Munster territory, which is where Gloucester would remain camped for the next 10 minutes.
In the end, it took 35 phases for the dam to burst, with Cipriani’s pass finding Ollie Thorley in space on the right, with Twelvetrees’ conversion hitting the post.
Yet no sooner had the door been opened, than Munster slammed it shut, thanks to a piece of opportunism from Murray, who scragged Callum Braley at a ruck. From the scrum, Stander made a beeline for Cipriani. Munster then switched play left, where Billy Holland’s fabulous offload put Keith Earls over.
After Andrew Conway had a tremendous individual effort ruled out for a forward pass, Gloucester again manoeuvred themselves into the Munster 22, where they started their short-range pick-and-go game, which yielded a try for prop Fraser Balmain. Again, Munster’s reply was instant and this time Conway would not be denied as he latched on to Carbery’s exquisite grubber.
Fittingly, it was Carbery who had the final word, picking off Mark Atkinson’s pass and going the distance.
Lunge for the line: Rory Scannell forces his way past Gloucester’s Ed Slater and Callum Braley to score Munster’s second try