Rugby Union: Gloucester count saintly blessings

Gloucester 15 Harlequins 13
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IF GLOUCESTER require the services of a philosopher hero to extricate them from the mire of mid-season mediocrity, Philippe Saint-Andre seems as good a bet as any. One minute, the revered French wing is shrugging his shoulders with the worldly nonchalance of a latter-day Sartre - the principles of existentialism may remain a mystery to the Cherry and White tight forwards, but their new lord and master seems to know his onions - and the next, he is leading from the front with all the righteous passion of a hairy-chested Joan of Arc. He has something else going for him, too: pure, undiluted luck.

Lashings of the stuff.

The rub of the green is an indispensable ally when it comes to piecing together a decent knock-out run and sure enough, the West Countrymen were almost swamped by good fortune in Saturday's Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter- final at a taut, edgy Kingsholm. During the 96 minutes - yes, 96 - of play sanctioned by the match officials, Saint-Andre and his clubmates played approximately a tenth of the rugby while hoovering up 99 per cent of the available blessings from on high. Gloucester would not have scored a try had they still been out there now, but five Mark Mapletoft penalties, the last of them a good six minutes into drinking time at the end of the afternoon, earned them a first win over Harlequins in well over five years.

Monsieur Sartre himself would have exhausted a few brain cells in attempting to work out how it all happened, for the Londoners exerted almost as tight a stranglehold on territory and possession as they maintained in skills. Armed with the outstanding forwards in Keith Wood and Adam Leach and the most threatening runners in Dan Luger and Daren O'Leary, they also boasted the most accomplished footballer on view in John Schuster, who complimented his own muscular commitment amid the midfield traffic with passes that would have reduced John Dawes and Mike Gibson to tears of joy.

Yet Gloucester won, controversially and, at least as far as their visitors were concerned, agonisingly. A single score adrift at 12-13 as dusk began its descent, their season appeared to be heading for the graveyard when Rory Greenslade-Jones spilled the ball forward after staging an isolated injury-time raid on the Quins 22. However, Chris Sheasby was pulled up for not releasing as he attempted to drive away from the ensuing scrum and Mapletoft landed a nerveless three-pointer from 16 metres to snatch the spoils.

Sheasby's reaction was somewhere on the annoyed side of apoplectic - he later accused Graham Hughes, the referee, of "officiating like a schoolmaster" - and if John Gallagher, the Quins manager, was more sanguine in his criticism of the most theatrically officious whistle-blower in the English game, there was no disguising his exasperation. "You go to all the refereeing seminars, you come away thinking you understand where they're coming from and then you see a performance like that," he groaned.

No one in world rugby loses with more grace than the former All Black full-back, so his assertion that Hughes "killed much of the game stone dead" will reach a good many ears.

Gallagher had no particular beef with the Sheasby decision - "thanks to a pillar in the stand, I didn't see the incident," he admitted - but there were a dozen other calls that got his goat, so to speak. We have been here before with Hughes, most recently just 16 days ago when he blew London Irish out of their Premiership contest with Leicester. Too many British and Irish A-listed officials are now out of step and out of sympathy with the leading players (witness David McHugh during the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham) and until they understand that spectators do not pay anything between pounds 12 and pounds 37 a head to watch them referee, an already widespread sense of frustration will only increase.

Not that Saint-Andre was overly concerned, of course. "For me, the referee was brilliant," the new player-coach sniggered, although his tone was in itself a form of condemnation. "To be serious, though, I don't talk about officials, for the same reason I do not speak of other teams. During my international career, France lost a lot of games when the referee seemed, how you say, strange. It's life, eh? C'est la vie. There is no game without a referee, so I prefer to stay quiet."

He was quiet on other subjects, too; certainly, he made no great claims for his side's performance on their first big outing since Richard Hill's sacking a little under a fortnight previously. "We played with some heart, which was important, but we have work to do," he agreed. "We are too traditional still, too ready to play to the forwards and kick. We must change. Next season, I would like to be second or third choice on the wing and spend more time organising the team rather than playing every week. This is a start, though. I'm happy."

As Rob Fidler, the on-field captain, pointed out, Gloucester showed unmistakeable signs of a revival in spirit after their recent depression.

Despite losing Scott Benton, their international scrum-half, before the kick-off and Richie Tombs, their sheet- anchor centre, inside 10 minutes, they tackled themselves to a standstill and competed for every last scrap of ball. It was that new flowering of age-old pride that restricted Quins to a single Huw Harries try at the posts shortly after the restart.

No one stood up to be counted more visibly than Steve Ojomoh, whose iron strength at No 8 was a massive bonus in adversity. The former Bath man is sticking grimly to an ill- advised pledge to avoid the hairdresser until Gloucester win away from Kingsholm and while he is beginning to look disturbingly like an overgrown addition to the Four Tops, the Saint-Andre effect may bring an early end to his hirsute misery. "We've got West Hartlepool up there in a fortnight," he said. "I intend to play the game of my life." Start sharpening the scissors.

Gloucester: Penalties Mapletoft 5. Harlequins: Try Harries; Conversion Schuster; Penalties Schuster 2.

Gloucester: C Catling; B Johnson, S Mannix, R Tombs (R Greenslade-Jones, 10), P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, I Sanders; T Woodman (A Windo, 74), N McCarthy (C Fortey, 61), A Deacon, R Fidler (capt, D Sims, 53), M Cornwell, E Pearce (A Hazell, 69), S Ojomoh, N Carter.

Harlequins: D O'Leary; J Keyter, P Mensah (W Carling, 73), J Schuster, D Luger; R Liley, H Harries; D Barnes, K Wood (capt), G Halpin, G Llewellyn, W Davison (G Morgan, 60), R Jenkins, C Sheasby, A Leach (T Murphy, 88).

Referee: G Hughes (Manchester).