From cakewalk to close-run thing. Gloucester, given an early view of the road to a European Challenge Cup semi-final by James Hook’s brilliance in the outside-half role, found themselves under extreme pressure from a Connacht side whose tempestuous second-half performance was the polar opposite of their insipid effort in the opening 40 minutes. In the end, last night’s contest could not have been tighter.
Gloucester badly needed a positive outcome here, for there were issues that required addressing: not so much their four previous quarter-final defeats in this competition – two of them at the hands of French clubs, Stade Francais and Biarritz; the others inflicted by Wasps – as the more recent, bitterly frustrating failures at Premiership level. The vociferous peasants gathered together in the Shed are not yet revolting, so to speak, but the league campaign has been a disappointment to them, even with last year’s coaching upheavals taken fully into account.
Reassuringly for the West Countrymen, early indications suggested that Connacht’s forwards might struggle to eke out sufficient possession to mount a serious challenge. There were strong statements from players in each row of the Gloucester pack: Richard Hibbard and John Afoa at the sharp end, Tom Savage in the engine room, the relentless Matt Kvesic in the breakaway department. As a result, the home side could have been 24 points up at half-time rather than a mere 14.
The two tries they did score were little gems. The first, at the end of the opening quarter, was completed by Charlie Sharples – a wing who knows his way to the line, even if the England selectors no longer know their way to his front door. The second fell to the less familiar centre Billy Meakes on the half-hour. The common denominator? Hook.
Sharples’ touchdown owed everything to the outside-half’s combination of timing and trickery as he returned a clearance with compound interest, splitting the Connacht defensive line with a show of the ball and putting the full-back Steve McColl in the perfect position to deliver the decisive pass. Meakes’ try was the direct consequence of an inventive left-footed dab of a kick that could not conceivably have been more cleverly executed.
There was infinitely more edge and attitude about the Connacht pack on the resumption, however: a lecture from their head coach Pat Lam, the grand Samoan flanker of yore who pretty much personified those essential virtues during his playing days, did the trick. If Gloucester were spared the worst consequences, it was because their defence stayed strong. No one was stronger than Hibbard, whose tackling alone demonstrated why he is a hooker of Lions Test status.
Having weathered the storm from the wild west of the Emerald Isle, which lasted the whole of a one-sided third quarter, the English side marched upfield to earn a penalty that would have taken them out of sight with 18 minutes left on the clock. The chance went begging, Grieg Laidlaw dragging his kick wide of the left-hand stick, and it was an expensive miss: within the blink of an eye, Connacht were at the other end of the field, driving an attacking line-out with sufficient dynamism to force a penalty try, converted by Jack Carty.
It was a real contest now, especially with Gloucester creaking on their first-phase plays. But with Hibbard and Kvesic cutting down Connacht runners right, left and centre in displays of great bravery and commitment, the Kingsholmites just held out.
Scorers: Gloucester – Tries: Sharples, Meakes. Conversions: Laidlaw 2. Connacht – Try: Penalty try. Conversion: Carty.
Gloucester: S McColl; C Sharples, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw; D Murphy (N Wood 48), R Hibbard, J Afoa (S Puafisi 41-48), T Savage, T Palmer, S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic, G Evans (R Moriarty 73).
Connacht: M Muliaina (D Leader 34); T O’Halloran, D Poolman (C Ronaldson 53), R Henshaw, M Healy (I Porter 63); J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney (G Naoupu 3-11), A Browne (Naoupu 43), E Masterson (J Connolly 73), J Muldoon (capt).
Referee: M Raynal (France).