9 03 2011

Saturday provided an opportunity to catch up with how things have been progressing down at ‘Castle Grim’. It was the most eagerly awaited fixture of the season down at Kingsholm, and the first sell-out, a West Country derby against Baarf.    

I had been a Gloucester season ticket holder for thirteen years but didn’t renew this time around. This was primarily because my three month sojourn in Rwanda meant I would be away for all the pre-Christmas fixtures but also because the quality of rugby on offer during much of last season was disappointing. Law changes had reduced the game as a spectacle and I was getting neck ache from watching aerial ping pong.

In addition, with Forest’s re-emergence as promotion candidates there were increasingly regular conflicts of interest with the round ball game. I decided that once I returned from Africa I would make my spectating choices on a match by match basis – I suppose I might be called a cherry picker!      

I have to admit this was only my second outing to Kingsholm this year. The previous occasion had been a bitterly cold Thursday night, in January, with the game a ghostly apparition as a procession of ethereal players emerged from the freezing fog to cross the line; Glaws running in seven tries and racking up 60 points. It was very much a dead rubber in the Amlin Challenge Cup against ghost of a team from Agen, clearly lacking in spirit.   

None of the pre-season pundits fancied the Cherry and Whites this season. Money was tight, there had been no big name signings (with the possible exception of, former Scottish international lock, giant Jim Hamilton) and it was likely to be a period of further rebuilding under the stewardship of head coach Brian Repath and club skipper Mike Tindall. A low to mid table position was generally forecast with much depending upon the continued development of a crop of exciting young talent, whose emergence in the latter stages of last season had raised hopes, amongst the Kingsholm faithful, of brighter days ahead.  

It has been so far so good for the young guns, and the likes of Dave Lewis (scrum half), Charlie Sharples (wing), Henry Trinder (centre – pictured flying for England U20s ), Freddie Burns (fly-half) and Johnny May (centre/wing) have  impressed – all youngsters who, fingers crossed, appear to have exciting futures ahead of them.

Together with the older hands, amongst them, the afore mentioned Hamilton, back row Andy Hazel (a wonderful club servant), Scottish international scrum half Rory Lawson (left), volatile French hooker Olly Azam, thoroughbred (but sadly injury prone) winger James Simpson Daniel, dashing (but also prone to injury) full back Olly Morgan, and mobile back row forward Luke Narraway, they have turned Gloucester into the surprise package of the season.     

Going into Saturday’s Aviva Premiership game, the Cherry and Whites were sitting in third place, four points ahead of their fierce West Country rivals and coming off the back of an eight match unbeaten run. Bath had also been in impressive form, with only one defeat in nine starts, so something had to give.    

Bath were without skipper Lewis Moody, who has been nursing an injury throughout the 6 Nations Championship, and Gloucester had to make do without influential centre Mike Tindall, who has been  Moody’s replacement as on-pitch England captain during the wins against Wales, Italy and France.

According to recent celebrity gossip, ‘Tins’, who of course has an important fixture with Zara Phillips, World Champion horsewoman and eldest granddaughter of the Queen, later this year  (the other royal wedding) has been asked by Princess Anne to have a nose job, to sort out his wonky konk, before he walks her daughter down the aisle!        

He is, of course a Baarf old boy, having spent eight years at the Wreck before joining Gloucester in 2005.          

And there were other ‘old boys’ on view, adding spice to the occasion. Gloucester’s Samoan international Eliota Fuimaona-Sapolu lined up in the centre against his old team while Tom Voyce (also formerly of Wasps) was on the wing. 

A favorite son of Baarf, fly half or centre Olly Barkley, supposedly in search of a new challenge, endured a single miserable season at Kingsholm (2008-09) before returning to where his heart had always been!    

He might not have liked it much at Kingsholm but he will like it even less after snapping his leg (for a second time) with 13 minutes of the game to go and being stretchered off with an oxygen mask clasped to his face. At best he will be out until December and some have suggested the injury could be career threatening – hopefully not.         

It was an altogether better day for Gloucester who dominated the game from start to finish, completing a season’s double against the blue, black and whites – as rare as hen’s teeth!

A final score of 34-22 brought a ninth successive win (our longest unbeaten run since 2002) consolidated third place, nine points ahead of Bath, and served to underline that the Cherry and Whites are genuine Premiership contenders.

Neither was this was a weak Bath side. The ‘claassy’ South African half-back pairing of Michael Claassens and Butch James played behind a forward pack of international experience and the rampaging Matt Banahan had been released from England duty to line up on the wing, duly scoring following Bath’s only incisive move of the game.  

Gloucester dominated the scrum from the outset, forcing Bath on the back foot, and gaining a territorial advantage that was converted into four tries scored by: Henry Trinder, England prop Paul Doran Jones (shame he’s off to Northampton at the end of the season) and Tom Voyce (2). Two further, first half, try scoring opportunities were butchered!

Welsh fly half, Nicky Robinson, who hasn’t been offered a new contract for next season and is moving on to Wasps (I’m not altogether sure that’s a good thing!) landed four penalties and a conversion.

Next week Gloucester face Newport Gwent Dragons in an LV Anglo-Welsh semi- final; tough opponents but eminently beatable at Kingsholm. The final of this competition is to be played at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens, a week later.

Gloucester have flattered to deceive many times in recent years, last winning a trophy, the European Challenge Cup, back in 2005-2006.

Since then, despite finishing top of the pile in the standard Premiership season in consecutive seasons, 2006-07 and 2007-08, they failed miserably in the play offs on both occasions. Add to that,  a Twickenham humiliation by Cardiff in the 2009 EDF final and a narrow defeat to Northampton Saints, in last year’s  closely contested LV final, at Worcester Warriors’ Sixways ground.

These big game defeats have all added up to a ‘chokers’ tag that won’t go away until Gloucester finally pick up another piece of silverware. If they could somehow win the LV trophy, which carries with it automatic qualification for next year’s Heineken Cup competition, it would  remove much of the pressure from the Premiership run in and then who knows what might happen…





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