Gloucester dig deep for victory over Exiles
January 31, 2009
Man of the match Nick Wood is congratulated by team mate Greg Somerville following their victory over the Exiles at Kingsholm
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Gloucester staged an astounding fightback to replace London Irish as Guinness Premiership leaders following a Kingsholm thriller.
Wing Iain Balshaw's 50th Premiership career try seven minutes from the end completed Gloucester's recovery act after they trailed 18-3 just before half-time. Fly-half Olly Barkley kept Gloucester in the hunt by booting six penalties from seven attempts - but Irish imploded.
Early tries by wings Adam Thompstone and Topsy Ojo put Irish in charge as they looked to consolidate their place at the Premiership summit. But Gloucester, low on confidence after crashing out of Europe early and lacking a victory in any competition since January 3, ultimately produced one of the Premiership's great recovery acts. And they now lead the table by a point from Irish, whose losing bonus was scant consolation from a game they dominated for so long.
Gloucester, reeling from their Heineken Cup pool stage exit in Biarritz last week, handed a full Premiership debut to 19-year-old student Henry Trinder in midfield. Barkley, meanwhile, replaced fly-half Ryan Lamb and Wales international No.8 Gareth Delve began his comeback from a serious knee injury suffered on Test duty in South Africa seven months ago.
Hooker Olivier Azam captained Gloucester for the first time, with Mike Tindall and Luke Narraway both on England duty, but Irish included fullback Delon Armitage and lock Nick Kennedy. Armitage and Kennedy, both fit again following recent injuries, were released from England's pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal three days ago to gain match practice ahead of the tournament.
Gloucester, who were thumped 42-12 by Irish just before Christmas, dominated early territory before falling behind to a short-range Hewat penalty after seven minutes. And the visitors rapidly extended their lead, moving 10-0 ahead when Thompstone profited from weak challenges by Gloucester flankers Apo Satala and Alasdair Strokosch to claim a try that Hewat converted.
Gloucester had never suffered four successive defeats during head coach Ryan's tenure, but they were in grave danger of reaching that low with more than an hour remaining. Armitage, watched from the stands by England manager Martin Johnson, then inflicted further grief on Gloucester by delivering a scoring pass to Ojo after Irish ripped apart the home side's defence.
And Gloucester, to a degree, only had themselves to blame because Irish's attacking platform was built after Azam showed poor leadership by conceding a penalty on halfway for an attempted trip. Hewat booted the resulting penalty 40 metres into touch, and after an injection of power from Thompstone, Armitage's sweet feint and pass made Ojo's job easy.
Hewat added the extras, and although Barkley landed a penalty 11 minutes before half-time, Irish were good value for their 15-3 advantage. Barkley and Hewat exchanged further penalties, before Armitage was left limping after a hefty collision and another Barkley strike narrowed Gloucester's deficit to nine points at half-time. But they suffered a major injury blow within 10 minutes of the restart when substitute scrum-half Dave Lewis was carried off.
Lewis, who had only been on the pitch for three minutes after replacing Rory Lawson, required oxygen before he was stretchered away suffering from what appeared to be a serious ankle injury. Lamb appeared off the bench to take an unfamiliar number nine role, and Irish immediately extended their lead.
Hewat had the vision to launch a thrilling counter-attack from behind his own line, and when the move broke down 70 metres upfield, referee Dave Pearson sin-binned Gloucester centre Anthony Allen for killing possession. Hewat kicked the penalty, leaving Gloucester entering the final quarter 12 points adrift and showing no obvious sign of denting Irish's superiority.
Barkley though, had other ideas, slotting two penalties in three minutes - the second following a reckless challenge by Irish No.8 Chris Hala'Ufia on Azam - and Irish were suddenly breathing a little less easily. Irish continued searching for the self-destruct button, allowing Barkley a sixth successful penalty when centre Seilala Mapusua was yellow-carded for a technical offence, and after appearing in complete control, the Exiles had inexplicably lost their way.
Irish were rocking, and it needed a stunning cover tackle by scrum-half Paul Hodgson on Balshaw to prevent the west country club from going in front for the first time. But Gloucester's passion and commitment could not be extinguished, and Balshaw sealed the deal to complete a spectacular triumph.
"There has been a lot of stuff thrown around about us in the last month," said Gloucester head coach Dean Ryan following the game. "We could have trotted excuses out, but you cannot hide from pressure. We are not playing our best rugby. But we are top of the league - which, in my quiet moments, I find quite amusing! Everyone has been screaming for us to play more, but it is about playing at the right times."
Irish boss Toby Booth was left to rue his team's capitulation, commenting, "We penalised ourselves out of the game. The ball we did have in the second half, we kicked poorly away. We stopped doing the things we had been doing well. Gloucester is not the easiest place to come, and I am pleased with our physicality to live with them - it is just disappointing we didn't turn pressure into points.
"This game is all about momentum, and when you've got it you have got to cash in on it. We had momentum in the first half, and Gloucester had it in the second."
The gloss was taken off the victory by the injury to replacement scrum-half Lewis who it was revealed after the game had broke his ankle when he fell awkwardly following a crunching tackle by Hala'Ufia.
Gloucester: Walker, Balshaw, Trinder, Allen, Simpson-Daniel, Barkley, R. Lawson, Dickinson, Azam, Somerville, Eustace, Brown, Strokosch, Satala, Delve, Lewis.
Replacements: Lewis for R. Lawson (47), Wood for Dickinson (54), Bortolami for Eustace (49), Hazell for Satala (43), Lamb for Lewis (49). Not Used: Titterrell, Foster.
Sin Bin: Allen (52).
London Irish: D. Armitage, Ojo, Seveali'i, Mapusua, Thompstone, Hewat, Hodgson, Dermody, Paice, Lea'aetoa, Kennedy, Casey, Thorpe, Danaher, Hala'ufia, Skuse.
Replacements: Catt for Hewat (66), Coetzee for Paice (63), Skuse for Lea'aetoa (48), Hudson for Kennedy (63), Johnson for Danaher (39), Corbisiero for Skuse (69). Not Used: Lalanne.
Sin Bin: Mapusua (62).
Ref: David Pearson (RFU).