Rugby Union / Courage Championship: Gloucester enjoy rub of the green

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The Independent Online
London Irish. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6

Gloucester . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18

FOR London Irish read Ireland; for green read naivety. Both clubs desperately wanted two points to climb out of the nether region of the First Division and it is clear that Gloucester will not go down without an almighty fight.

The Exiles are safer and have an easier run-in but they have been warned. So, too, have Ireland. Keith Richardson, the Gloucester coach, does not give Ireland a prayer at Murrayfield next Saturday. Given the fragile state of the game across the water, London Irish are considered to be one of the stronger clubs.

They fielded six internationals but were without a couple more and the absence of their full-back Jim Staples, who turned up at Sunbury on crutches, left them vulnerable. It was like watching the national side. When they were down they reacted with predictable spirit and passion, but these qualities alone are no longer sufficient.

Staples, who ruptured medial ligaments in his right knee when tackled in the Ireland trial, was replaced on Saturday by Owen Cobbe, a 19-year-old stand-off. It was the first sign that, beneath the top layer, the Exiles have little substance. Playing downwind, Gloucester were confined to a 6-3 lead at half-time and then benefited considerably from two incidents in quick succession.

Gary Halpin, the tight-head prop, recoiled from a maul on the stroke of half-time with a recurrence of a neck injury that forced him to depart from the A game between Ireland and Scotland two weeks ago. He received late clearance to play against Gloucester and, under the circumstances, the Irish should have chosen a prop among the replacements. No pure genius there. Instead, Michael Patton, the Oxford University hooker, had to do a job for which he was not suited and Gloucester quickly took advantage, going for a pushover which had the Irish in such disarray that they conceded a penalty try for detaching from the scrum.

Referee David Matthews, a new arrival on England's international panel, made another brave judgment when ruling that John McFarland had not grounded the ball over the Gloucester line. The Irish hooker thought otherwise, but Matthews was in the perfect place to make his decision: on his knees in front of McFarland's nose.

The Exiles had no luck of the Irish. Michael Corcoran missed five kicks at goal. His first penalty attempt hit an upright after which Simon Geoghegan was unfortunate to have the ball knocked out of his hands as he was about to score. It could have been so different, but if any side deserves the rub of the green it is Gloucester.

Their record in the First Division since the introduction of leagues is fifth, second, second, sixth and fourth. That was before they were undermined by a mass exodus of players. The bitterness remains and officials still talk about their home- bred boys being lured away by offers they could not refuse.

Most of the dozen who left still live and work in Gloucester. Kevin Dunn, the hooker who joined Wasps, lives in the next street to Kingsholm. 'I saw his car parked there the other day and it's got a Wasps sticker on it,' Mickey Booth said. 'I'm surprised the wheels are still on.' Booth, a former scrum- half, has been with the club since 1956 and is now the chairman of selectors. To a man like Booth, swapping the cherry and white for another colour is simply unthinkable.

As if losing a team was not bad enough, it coincides this year with the fact that four clubs get relegated. Gloucester, with six points from seven games, could be one of them but nobody would welcome it. Their loyal supporters warm the cockles of a treasurer's heart at any club they visit. London Irish had their biggest crowd of the season.

In rebuilding, Gloucester have trawled locally. 'I think we've got two-thirds of a good team,' Booth said. They have got ball-winning locks, a dynamic back row and reliable half-backs. In Martyn Roberts they have also found an accomplished full-back. He is preferred to Tim Smith, who only got a game, on the right wing, when Derrick Morgan withdrew.

London Irish: Penalty Corcoran; Drop goal Burke. Gloucester: Tries penalty try, Roberts; Conversion Roberts; Penalties Roberts 2.

London Irish: O Cobbe; S Geoghegan, R Hennessy, D Curtis, M Corcoran; P Burke, R Saunders; N Donovan, J McFarland, G Halpin (M Patton, 40), C Hall, M Keenan, P Collins, A Verling, D Pegler (capt).

Gloucester: M Roberts; T Smith, D Cummins, D Caskie, S Morris; N Matthews, M Hannaford; T Windo, J Hawker, A Deacon, D Sims, R West, P Glanville, P Ashmead, I Smith (capt).

Referee: D Matthews (Liverpool).

(Photograph omitted)