Azam and heave keep Gloucester on straight and narrow

Gloucester 23 - London Irish 16
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The Independent Online

Though not quite the up-the-jumper stuff traditionally associated with these parts, this was one of those Kingsholm afternoons when the spectators, never mind the players, were happy to hear the final whistle. A record Premiership crowd for the ground were happy to hit the bars, for the winning of points can sometimes be a slow grind rather than a show of pyrotechnics.

Though not quite the up-the-jumper stuff traditionally associated with these parts, this was one of those Kingsholm afternoons when the spectators, never mind the players, were happy to hear the final whistle. A record Premiership crowd for the ground were happy to hit the bars, for the winning of points can sometimes be a slow grind rather than a show of pyrotechnics.

Gloucester completed an opening win double, after prevailing at Leeds last Sunday, but needed an unintentional ruse to lull the Irish into a false sense of security. The home side began with a regular back rower, Peter Buxton, jumping at the front of the line-out, or, more accurately, standing still in the line-out while the flanker Adam Balding was the target at the tail. Twice in the opening few minutes the summer recruit from Leicester was hoisted to receive Olivier Azam's throw, and twice he spilled it into Irish clutches. The visitors licked their lips, but Gloucester held their nerve. They went to Balding again, the catch was safe, and Azam peeled round to snaffle a try at the heart of the driving pack.

In putting their initial fumbles behind them, Gloucester halved a 10-point lead built by the Irish, through Barry Everitt's penalty for a Gloucester offside, and a try from the training ground by Geoff Appleford. A line-out off the top went from Kieran Roche out to Everitt, the fly-half hoisted a well-disguised cross kick to his blind side and Scott Staniforth's smart midair catch and outside pass sent Appleford in. Staniforth, four times capped by Australia, had already announced himself as an attacking threat with a jinking run round Marcel Garvey.

A short but torrential cloudburst accompanied Azam's try and forced those in the front rows of the new stand at one end, which has raised Kingsholm's capacity by 2,000 to 13,000, to scurry to find cover. Or perhaps it was a reaction to the quality of the play. Irish are often eminently watchable but only with a kind of grim fascination at how they attempt to frustrate more creative opposition. Car-crash rugby, you might call it.

What the Cherry and White majority wanted was more of Garvey in an attacking mode, but the skidpan conditions compromised any expansive intent. Instead, after Everitt chipped over a second penalty, Gloucester kept it tight for a second try from a line-out. The combination between James Forrester and the scorer, Jake Boer, did not look like the move that was called but it produced seven points, with Henry Paul converting.

A bout of knuckles in the front rows earned yellow cards for Gloucester's Terry Sigley and Rob Hardwick of Irish, but the interval arrived with no further score and the visitors ahead 13-12. Gloucester sensibly resumed by picking and charging and, after 45 and 55 minutes, Paul calmly chipped over penalties for an 18-13 advantage.

The skies had cleared, but Irish were bogged down for much of the second period, with Mike Catt unable to do much to relieve the pressure. Yet, Paul's points apart, Gloucester were not scoring, and with eight minutes remaining, Irish eked out a penalty near the hosts' 22 and Mark Mapletoft kicked the goal.

The Shed got twitchy. Then, on 77 minutes, a flash of inspiration for Gloucester from, you've guessed it, a line-out. Chris Fortey, on for Azam, bravely called a round-the-front move, and combined with Buxton to bullock into the 22. Paul darted up the centre to tie in the defence, Terry Fanolua probed right, then a switchback saw James Simpson-Daniel deliver a long scoring pass to Andy Hazell at the right corner. Though Paul could not convert, and missed a subsequent penalty, Gloucester were - in more than one sense - home and hosed.

Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Garvey, T Fanolua, H Paul, J Simpson-Daniel; D McRae, A Gomarsall; T Sigley (N Wood, 73), O Azam (C Fortey, 58), G Powell, P Buxton, A Brown, A Balding (A Eustace, 70), J Forrester (Wood, 31-39; A Hazell, 39), J Boer (capt).

London Irish: D Armitage; P Sackey, G Appleford, M Catt, S Staniforth; B Everitt (M Mapletoft, 68), D Edwards (P Hodgson, 52); N Hatley, A Flavin (R Russell, 52), R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), R Casey, P Gustard (P Durant, 31-39; N Kennedy, 58), K Roche, K Dawson (P Murphy, 40).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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