Gloucester fall off mountain as Lewsey eyes peak

Wasps 34 Gloucester 3
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This time next year, Josh Lewsey will be contemplating an attempt on Everest via the wickedly demanding North Col: up the Rongbuk Glacier, through rifts and crevasses that George Mallory himself described as "terribly cold and forbidding", and on to the upper slopes of the mountain – the "death zone" – where lack of oxygen plays havoc with the mind and muscle tissue deteriorates because the human body is not equipped to operate at such altitude. Still, it could be worse. Lewsey could be playing rugby for Gloucester.

Of all the God-awful weeks experienced by any English club in living memory, Gloucester's final week of the season was perhaps the most grim. Slaughtered by 38 points in the final of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, humbled on home soil by lowly Worcester and thrashed to within an inch of their lives by a Wasps team who rediscovered the best of themselves a month too late, the West Countrymen finished two places short of a Premiership play-off slot, having made the running for much of the campaign. Next? A comprehensive review of recent events, led by the board. That should be a barrel of laughs, too.

Those supporters determined to look on the bright side will point to their club's qualification for the 2009-10 Heineken Cup, but judging by the state of Dean Ryan's team, it will be easier to skateboard up the Lhotse Face in jeans and a jumper than find a way into the knock-out phase of that particular competition. Ryan was proud of his tired, injury-riddled squad on Saturday – "Instead of calling for a public hanging, people might like to consider the circumstances under which we played this game and how much this group has achieved," said the coach – but he also confessed to his disappointment.

"Of course I'm flat," he said. "To spend four years building and to reach the big stages, only to realise that what you've done isn't good enough... that's hard. What happens now? It depends on whether the club decides to pull everything apart. I haven't detected any mood or appetite for such a thing and I hope it doesn't happen, but it's not really up to me. All I'd say is that there are more factors at work here than just the coaching and playing staffs. If we have an open and honest review of the operation from top to bottom, we'll come through this."

Wasps came through their own tunnel of tribulation some weeks ago, and the four teams involved in the Premiership semi-finals must be deeply thankful that the Londoners mistimed their surge up the table. They will certainly take some stopping next season, especially if they miss out on Heineken Cup qualification and are therefore able to throw themselves at the Premiership. They may be losing an unusually large number of high-calibre players, some to retirement and others to the lure of the Eurozone, but the younger generation, Lachlan Mitchell, Dominic Waldouck, Danny Cipriani, Joe Simpson, Rob Webber, Hugo Ellis, looks spectacularly useful.

Dear old Josh is leaving the club in the best of hands. "This is a very special place," he said, a few minutes after receiving a standing ovation from a sell-out Adams Park crowd, who stayed behind en masse to bid him the fondest of farewells. "Sometimes in life, you don't realise what you're leaving until you walk away from it. Will I stay involved? Well, I'm not dead quite yet – although if I can still say that this time next year it will be a bonus – and I'm more than happy to be a sounding board for people here, if that's what they want. But I need to take a proper break from rugby. There are other things to think about now."

Had the Almighty been resident in his heaven, Lewsey would have been granted one last try on his last club appearance. What could have been more fitting for so courageous and generous a rugby spirit? Unfortunately, the World Cup-winning wing found himself bereft of divine help, and for all his efforts – as late as the 87th minute, he was still wrenching himself away from gang-tackling opponents and sprinting upfield in search of a five-pointer – there was nothing doing. As it turned out, Simon Shaw scored one instead. At 35, Shaw performed with the energy and joie de vivre of an acne-plagued rookie half his age.

He scrummaged strongly, not least when Wasps lost Webber to the cooler early in the second quarter, and when Gloucester slipped into pre-Experimental Law Variation Mode and set up a driving maul that threatened the home line, he single-handedly stopped it dead in its tracks. His off-loading game was both imaginative and precise, his tackle-count was high and his 40-metre gallop up the right touchline made him look like John Eales incarnate. On this evidence, it is just possible that he will play as well for the Lions in South Africa this summer as he did when they last visited Springbok country a dozen years ago.

How Lewsey would have loved a seat on the same flight to Johannesburg, leaving in late May. Sitting alongside him on Saturday night, dispensing herograms along with everyone else, was none other than Ian McGeechan, his director of rugby at club level and the man who declined to pick him for the Lions tour. There was not a hint of tension between the two of them, not even the faintest crackle of discomfort. It said everything that needed saying about the Wasps way.

Scorers: Wasps: Tries Flutey 2, Voyce, Shaw; Conversions Cipriani 2, Staunton 2; Penalties Cipriani 2. Gloucester: Penalty Barkley.

Wasps: L Mitchell; T Voyce, D Waldouck, R Flutey, J Lewsey; D Cipriani (J Staunton, h-t), J Simpson; T Payne (J Ward, 83), R Webber, P Vickery (C Beech, 70), S Shaw (M Robinson, 83), G Skivington (R Birkett, 58), J Worsley (H Ellis, 83), S Betsen (capt), J Hart (Ward, 25-36; J Haskell, 49).

Gloucester: O Morgan; C Sharples, H Trinder, O Barkley, M Foster; C Spencer, R Lawson (D Lewis, 62); A Dickinson (Somerville, 62), S Lawson (A Titterrell, 44), G Somerville (N Wood, 44; D Williams 69), A Eustace (A Brown, 44), M Bortolami, L Narraway, A Satala, G Delve (capt).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).