Rugby Union: COMMENTARY: Angels line up for Newcastle

Gloucester 27 Newcastle 29
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The Independent Online
VA'AIGA TUIGAMALA, the Allied Dunbar Premiership's best-known evangelical Christian, may or may not have a direct line to the Almighty, but there is no doubting the fact that the God of rugby has taken a shine to the hardened sinners of Newcastle. Gloucester, on the other hand, will not be feeling quite so reverent this Easter Monday morning; to them, the deity is a malevolent old so-and-so with a warped sense of justice and a blind spot where his all-seeing eye should be.

You can argue it either way. Forced to brave the inquisitorial torments of a seething Kingsholm, Newcastle had their championship credentials examined in the minutest detail by an inspired outfit operating at the peak of its collective power and emerged intact, despite being restricted to starvation rations of 30 per cent possession and 20 per cent territory. No team survives those odds without a helping hand from above.

Gloucester, meanwhile, will forever claim that Newcastle's helping hand held a whistle between its thumb and forefinger. John Pearson, the former international official, played a central role in this spine-tingling piece of rugby theatre and while some of his most contentious decisions were subsequently shown to be bang on the button, the cumulative effect of his refereeing left the Kingsholm "Shedheads" demanding documentary evidence of his parentage.

Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach, was on the thoroughly cheesed-off side of apoplectic at the final whistle, his frustration deepened by Mark Mapletoft's narrow failure to snatch the spoils with a drop goal at the death.

Thirty minutes of breast-beating later, Hill was more philosophical. "Funnily enough, I'd talked to the players earlier in the week about the importance of showing humility in victory and dignity in defeat," he said, adding mischievously: "What a complete load of crap that was."

Wisely, he stopped short of giving Pearson both barrels; as a breed, referees are equipped with elephantine memories and the capacity to bear deep and meaningful grudges, as well as chips on both shoulders. Hill did, however, venture to suggest that Newcastle won all the 50-50 decisions that really mattered, a view not even half-heartedly disputed by the visitors themselves.

Having awarded Newcastle a profoundly questionable penalty try on 17 minutes - "their front row was on the floor and we we were on our feet, but apparently we were to blame for dropping the scrum," said Tony Windo, a bemused Gloucester captain - Pearson then chose to allow Peter Walton's game-breaking score 15 minutes from time despite his touch judge, Laurie Bryant, signalling an offside against Dean Ryan at the preceding breakdown.

To add insult to injury, he deemed Paul Van-Zandvliet's calculated trip on Mapletoft to be a mild misdemeanour rather than a capital offence. Norman Tebbit would have described it as "liberalism gone mad" and pointed the referee in the direction of the nearest bike.

The debate will rage for a good while yet, for hell hath no fury like a Gloucester side hard done by. But some aspects of Saturday's thunderous occasion brook no argument whatsoever; not only did the game provide indisputable confirmation, as if any were still needed, that club rugby in England is in the rudest of good health, but it also threw up three intriguing candidates for the close-season tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Interestingly, all of them finished on the losing side.

Assuming Clive Woodward takes the sensible decision and banishes Martin Johnson to a tropical beach in a non-rugby playing country, he will surely give Rob Fidler a seat on the flight south. Along with Danny Grewcock, the 23-year-old front jumper is the form lock in the country; significantly, he made an unholy mess of Garath Archer's line-out game and covered more ground with ball in hand in the course of a single match than the big Geordie looked capable of negotiating in a month of Sundays.

Brian Johnson must also have secured a toehold in Woodward's consciousness, especially as England are so acutely embarrassed in the wing department that they played their last international with a scrum-half on one flank and a midfield back on the other.

Yet the real revelation was to be found amid the fire and fury of the loose exchanges. Steve Ojomoh's reputation as an 80-minute player used to be based on 80 minutes a season, but his move from Bath to Gloucester has clearly resulted in a willingness to work far longer hours.

"I thought Steve was absolutely magnificent," enthused Hill. "I played alongside him at Bath and it's no secret that he had a reputation as a lazy player, but I always felt that more than anything, he needed the sort of regular rugby he could never quite secure at the Recreation Ground.

"He wasn't going to walk straight into the first team here and he's had to win his spurs in the lower sides, but I brought him to Kingsholm because I knew him to be a quality act. When he performs like that, there is no better forward of his kind in the country."

Ojomoh's muscular ball-carrying and natural athleticism rendered Ryan, a near certainty for the tour, more anonymous than at any point in the Newcastle campaign. Indeed, the entire Geordie loose trio were as quiet as church mice, although Pat Lam's tackling was as wounding and wide-ranging as ever.

In the last analysis, Newcastle triumphed in precisely the same way that they escaped the ambushes of Bath, Leicester, Northampton and, more recently, Saracens. They defended with a passion and looked to Rob Andrew, their talismanic No 10, to grasp whatever scoring opportunities might present themselves.

Andrew was directly responsible for very nearly two-thirds of Newcastle's tally, twice scuttling past Mapletoft in the outside-half channel for the simplest of tries. "I could have driven a bus through those gaps," he smiled afterwards and if anyone feels obliged to point out that Andrew will soon be due a bus pass, they must also accept that age does not wither him.

Gloucester: Tries Saint-Andre, Ojomoh; Conversion Mapletoft; Penalties Mapletoft 5. Newcastle: Tries Andrew 2, penalty try, Walton; Conversions Andrew 3; Penalty Andrew.

Gloucester: C Catling; B Johnson, T Fanolua, R Tombs, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton; A Windo (capt), C Fortey (P Greening, 74), A Deacon, R Fidler, D Sims, S Ojomoh, S Devereux, N Carter.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, A Tait, V Tuigamala, M Shaw; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir, P Walton, D Ryan (capt), P Lam.

Referee: J Pearson (Durham).