Rugby Union: Gloucester's honour in adversity

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In Leicester some roads had been flooded because it had not so much rained as poured, a fitting metaphor for the ill fortunes of visiting Gloucester. To lose an entire second team's worth of players would matter less if no one else were injured.

So it never rains but it pours. Key players among those who remain are crocked and now the fit- and-well Paul Ashmead can be added to the absentees - dismissed by David Matthews after 13 minutes for stamping on Dean Richards's neck. Sheer folly by Ashmead and further sheer agony for straitened Gloucester, who will be without their abrasive flanker for at least six weeks.

As it turned out, Leicester would have preferred him to stay. 'It was the worst thing that could have happened,' Tony Russ, their coaching director, moaned. You could see what he meant. Towards the end Gloucester's 14 men fought back from 8-22 to 21-22 with 13 points and, had they kicked instead of run their penalties, they would probably have won.

'I was proud of them, but what use is pride when another two points have gone?' Keith Richardson, Gloucester's coach, moaned. As you will have gathered, it was a moaning kind of afternoon at Welford Road, Russ dissatisfied with his team's performance; and the result, Gloucester's second defeat and Leicester's second victory in two league games, leaving Richardson just dissatisfied.

At the same time as Gloucester give him cause for concern, Richardson has been giving thought to the wider ramifications of player movement - and is profoundly pessimistic that a trend may have been set which could prove irreversible. Richardson makes it clear that he is not accusing any of his former players of any impropriety. His point is general.

Certain players across the country have evidently transferred simply to improve their rugby prospects. But deep anxiety has been expressed, not least by the Rugby Football Union itself, that some might be switching clubs for more material reasons.

If inducements ever became the norm - whether in the form of cars, straight cash or whatever - then Gloucester's boast that they concentrate on local talent as a matter of principle and preference would become as empty as it is proud.

If you accept that Richard West's home at Ledbury is near enough, every one of Saturday's Cherry and Whites is a local product. By design, Gloucester are therefore not in the marketplace, but if they continue to lose they will end up in the Second Division and where would that leave their principles? It would be a dire day for English rugby.

'Any player is always welcome to come and join us, but I won't be getting on the phone to anyone,' Richardson said. 'Gloucester is the richest club in the country. We made pounds 180,000 profit last year and effectively could buy up anyone we wanted. But this club is an amateur rugby union club and we really believe in that.

'If others have different systems, it's up to them. It would be a tragedy for rugby union if a club like Gloucester were stuffed by this sort of thing, because the worst kind of people would then be in the driving seat.'

At least Gloucester are honourable, and if they can hang in there in this fateful season when four First Division clubs will be relegated, the young talent exists within the club for it soon to flourish again. Or so Richardson says.

Leicester, too, uphold a proud tradition and Russ, too, was execrating those clubs whose activities - quite apart from the small matter of undermining the game's fabric - did not even serve self- interest. Short-termism, he sighed. . . a curse.

Russ has at least been given time at Leicester and into his third season his labour is bearing fruit. He has the most promising front-five forwards in the country, or will do in November when Martin Johnson is fit and Dean Richards reverts from lock to back row. He has Neil Back to return on the flank next Saturday, three of the fastest wings in rugby operating on rota and a massive public support approaching 8,000 season-ticket holders.

There is a specific need for authority at outside-half, where Jez Harris has been in and out more times than Redgrave and Pinsent. Otherwise, though, the problems are mainly in the mind: the knowledge of when and where to do what (particularly feed the wings) and equally the mental leap involved in developing a killer instinct.

Leicester, to use the obvious boxing analogy, had Gloucester on the ropes but failed to deliver the knock-out and eventually were lucky to win on points. As soon as Ashmead had walked, Steve Hackney scored their first try and, although Gloucester constructed a superb move for Derrick Morgan's try, the fast-improving Aadel Kardooni and after half-time Nigel Richardson added further Leicester tries which seemed conclusive.

'We're going to be a very difficult side to beat because even when we play badly we win,' Russ said, with a mix of irony and relief. At the moment their grip was tightest, Leicester simply let go. Finally Tim Smith's touchline conversion of Marcus Hannaford's try left the margin at an excruciating single point.

Something similar had occurred in the Tigers' far bigger win over London Irish a week earlier. 'It's not fitness; it's the ability to sustain the mental side through 80 minutes,' Russ said. 'What we tend to do when we get ahead is try to play fancy-Dan football which causes us terrific problems. Our boys were stupid.' It would not have happened with Gloucester; in good times and bad - and these are pretty bad - they have never been fancy Dans.

Leicester: Tries Hackney, Kardooni, Richardson; Conversions Liley 2; Penalty Liley. Gloucester: Tries Morgan, Hannaford; Conversion T Smith; Penalties T Smith 3.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, D Richards, M Poole, J Wells (capt), S Povoas, N Richardson.

Gloucester: T Smith; D Morgan, D Caskie, S Morris, J Perrins; D Cummins, M Hannaford; P Jones, J Hawker, R Phillips, D Sims, R West, P Ashmead, R Fowke (D Kearsey, 55), I Smith (capt).

Referee: D Matthews (Liverpool).

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