How infuriating has this season been for Gloucester? Two scalps have been Saracens and Leicester, leaders of the Aviva Premiership, yet they have scrabbled to secure qualification for next season’s Heineken Cup, never mind any domestic honours.
Here, though, they carried the fight to Saracens in a way very few English sides do. True, the minds of some of the visitors may have been on next weekend’s climactic European semi-final against Toulon and the accuracy of their game deserted them, but Gloucester won through their positive qualities and despite losing a player to the sin-bin during the crucial final quarter.
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, could afford to shrug defeat away. He knows his club are guaranteed a home Premiership play-off next month and he rested several key players ahead of the meeting with Toulon at Twickenham.
For that game, however, Saracens may be without Will Fraser, their openside revelation of the season. The flanker left the field midway through the first half with a damaged shoulder and the results of a scan will be awaited with some trepidation, by England too, who must be considering Fraser for their summer visit to Argentina.
“Sometimes you need some gentle reminders of what you’re about, what makes your game successful,” McCall said, though there was nothing gentle about the try scored by Ben Morgan which gave Gloucester just enough of a cushion. This was Morgan’s first club start since January, the England No 8 having taken longer than expected to recover from the damaged right ankle which kept him out of all but the first match of the Six Nations Championship.
McCall suggested their own shortcomings contributed as much as anything to Jonny May’s brace in the first half, but the left-wing still had to be in position to score, and McCall can be sure Toulon will create such positions next Sunday.
None of which dilutes Gloucester’s happiness at virtually ensuring Heineken Cup rugby next season and giving Peter Buckton a fitting send-off. Buckton played the final 10 minutes at lock in what will be his last home game after 11 seasons at Kingsholm, bringing all his experience to bear as Saracens laid siege to the Gloucester line.
“We told the players before the match that this one game could define our season,” Nigel Davies, Gloucester’s director of rugby, said. After the disappointing loss to Sale Sharks, Davies took his squad to St David’s for a day’s coasteering - orienteering along the Welsh cliffs and in the sea - and his players certainly found their way against the league leaders.
Their first eight points came in as many minutes, Rob Cook initiating the position from which Freddie Burns kicked a long penalty and May finishing well after Saracens were turned over behind their own line-out. But Burns squandered five possible points off the kicking tee and Saracens, as they invariably do, hit back.
Their scrum had the upper hand but it was typical of their sloppy passing that Joel Tomkins scored the first of his two tries from a poor pass which went to ground and threw the defence off balance. Owen Farrell added the conversion and two penalties but Cook ensured his side went into half-time ahead when he broke from deep and Burns steered a precise grub kick through the defensive line which May reached first.
Where the first half was replete with free-flowing rugby, the third quarter became bogged down in the bane of modern rugby, the scrum. A burst from halfway by Jamie George might have earned a try but for a fierce tackle by Sione Kalamafoni – Gloucester’s player of the season – and the flanker was vital to the score which won the game: when Saracens failed to collect the restart which followed Farrell’s third penalty, Kalamafoni popped the ball to Morgan, who blasted a diagonal 20-metre line to the posts.
But Dan Robson was dispatched to the sin-bin for killing a ruck and May had to make a try-saving tackle on Alex Goode five metres from the line. Saracens were somewhat fortunate to be awarded a five-metre scrum but once they built momentum, Tomkins crossed again. That, though, was as near as Saracens could come for only their fourth Premiership loss, and Burns triumphantly played out time with his third penalty.
Gloucester: R Cook; C Sharples, H Trinder, B Twelvetrees, J May; F Burns, D Robson (sin-bin, 63-33); N Wood (D Murphy, 52), K Britton, S Knight (Y Thomas, 66), T Savage (capt; P Buckton, 70), L Lokotui, S Kalamafoni, B Morgan, A Qera (A Hazell, 65).
Saracens: A Goode; D Wyles (J Maddock, 73), J Tomkins, O Farrell, D Strettle; C Hodgson (D Taylor, 55), R Wigglesworth (B Spencer, 69); R Gill (M Vunipola, 52), J Smit (J George, 52), M Stevens (C Nieto, 60), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (G Kruis, 68), J Wray, E Joubert, W Fraser (J Burger, 16).
Referee: J P Doyle (London).