Halfpenny stakes late claim for Lions call

Cardiff Blues 50 Gloucester 12
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The Independent Online

Dean Ryan openly accepts that Gloucester have reached the end of a journey, which may come as a considerable relief to everyone involved, given that they have spent the last few seasons on the road to nowhere. Next season, the Cherry and Whites will embark on a new trek with a new squad, having identified new targets for a new age, but if the weekend's events at Twickenham are any guide, it will be the same old story of dead ends and cul-de-sacs – of "this far and no further".

Short of recruiting an entire phalanx of recent All Blacks to play alongside the craftsmanlike New Zealand prop Greg Somerville – who, along with one or two others, stood up to be counted in Saturday's Anglo-Welsh Cup final – it will be a long time before Gloucester can begin to compete physically against a strong, vibrant, thoughtfully constructed team like Cardiff Blues. Even that may not work. Ryan could spend the entire summer in Auckland or Christchurch searching for top-end backs and still not find any as powerful or imposing as the three-quarters fielded by the victors on Saturday.

In Jamie Roberts and the two Toms, Shanklin and James, the Blues fielded a trio of ultra-direct runners so ridiculously substantial that players as talented as Anthony Allen and James Simpson-Daniel looked like fleas on a bull's backside.

By way of rubbing it in, the Welshmen fielded Leigh Halfpenny, too. Halfpenny is fairly normal in the weights and measures department – 5ft 10ins, 13st 1lb – and is blessed with the innocent features of a requiem soloist from the local church choir, but when it comes to the strength-over-size quotient, he is entirely abnormal. He scored the first two tries in this final, and in so doing played himself into contention for this summer's Lions tour of South Africa, where the hard grounds would suit his high-velocity running and the high altitude would add metres to a kicking game already among the longest of any player in the Britain Isles.

Will he be included when Ian McGeechan reveals his hand tomorrow afternoon? His is a late candidacy, but the Lions could do far worse. Halfpenny proved his defensive mettle in the brick-hard Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse nine days ago; here, in a contest as soft as a sponge, he displayed the full range of attacking skills. McGeechan says he has learned a good deal about certain individuals in the weeks since the Six Nations Championship. The things he has learned about the 20-year-old from Swansea can only have impressed him.

If the four Blues backs (plus, it goes without saying, the magnificent flanker Martyn Williams) are in the Lions mix – "Geech doesn't need me to pick his side for him because he's been around long enough to make up his own mind, but I can't see those five missing out," pronounced the Blues coach, David Young, a three-time Lion himself – Gloucester are firmly in the mixed-up category.

Judging by the way they capitulated in the first half-an-hour, they went into this final not so much wondering if they could win as knowing full well that victory was out of the question. Ryan suggested as much himself when, after the game, he delivered what amounted to an epitaph for the current Kingsholm project.

"That wasn't about a learning experience out there," the head coach said. "That was about reality, and the reality is that whoever I'd picked to play, we couldn't have coped with that Cardiff Blues side for 80 minutes. We deserve credit for the things we've achieved, getting to finals and spending the best part of two-and -a-half seasons at the top of the Premiership, but ultimately, this group isn't good enough to compete at this level.

"I don't have five, six, seven players in Lions contention; I don't have magic dust to sprinkle around. We're at the end of this now. There can be no more talk about holding this squad together with the odd addition and hoping to win titles, because it won't happen."

Whether or not Ryan was also delivering his own Nunc Dimittis remains to be seen. Inevitably, some of the more humiliated of the Gloucester hordes will call for his head on a platter – those with long memories are setting this calamity alongside the 48-6 Pilkington Cup final towelling inflicted by Bath on a similarly hot and punishing day in 1990 – yet as the coach reminded his audience, the last few seasons have not been without their accomplishments. The West Countrymen may have been slaughtered here, but 11 other elite English clubs did not even qualify for the privilege.

Now, Gloucester must piece themselves back together for tomorrow night's league meeting with Worcester, followed by Saturday's trip to Wasps. (It may not feel like it in and around the Cotswolds, but they are still in the Premiership shake-up).

They will not have the services of two international backs who missed this one – Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw – and will probably be shorn of Andy Hazell in the back row. The long-serving flanker lasted only five minutes before being helped from the field, barely able to move. No one, as far as could be established, claimed his departure to be the result of tactics rather than injury, but then, Harlequins were not playing.

The Blues lost a familiar figure of their own even more quickly, when the scrum-half Jason Spice suffered a busted arm in the opening exchanges and was off the pitch inside three minutes. But the Welshmen could have forfeited another half-dozen and still walked away with the trophy. England's clubs have made it abundantly clear that they favour the scrapping of the Anglo-Welsh competition. Now we know why.

Scorers: Cardiff Blues: Tries Halfpenny (2), Blair (2), James, Sweeney, Shanklin; Conversions Blair (6); Penalty: Blair. Gloucester: Tries Foster, penalty try; Conversion Barkley.

Cardiff Blues: B Blair; L Halfpenny (G Thomas, 72), T Shanklin, J Roberts, T James; N Robinson (C Sweeney, 72), J Spice (R Rees, 2); G Jenkins, G Williams (R Thomas, 65), T Filise (J Yapp, 72), B Davies (D Jones, 69), P Tito (capt), M Molitika (A Powell, 60), M Williams, X Rush.

Gloucester: O Morgan; M Foster, J Simpson-Daniel, A Allen, M Watkins; R Lamb (O Barkley, 63), R Lawson (G Cooper, 59); N Wood (C Nieto, 70), O Azam, G Somerville, W James (M Bortolami, 53), A Brown, L Narraway, A Qera (A Hazell, 59, S Lawson, 64), G Delve (capt).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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