Lacklustre Leeds face uphill task

Leeds 10 Gloucester 26
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The broad acres provided a perfect setting for some free-flowing rugby, which made the complete absence of it all the more depressing. Here was a dog's breakfast of a match featuring poodles rather than rottweilers – a game entirely suitable for vegans, given the lack of anything resembling red meat, and so desperately slow that superannuated ruffians like Olivier Azam and Adam Eustace were able to go the distance without a 10-minute rest in the sin bin. If Gloucester were poor, Leeds were a whole lot worse. It looks like being a very long season for both of them.

At this stage, albeit an early one in the great scheme of things, it is difficult to see how the Yorkshiremen can stay in the Premiership. If the winners of the Rugby Football Union's heavily revamped second-tier Championship struggle to meet the promotion criteria, it is just about possible that they will survive by default. Otherwise, the best they can look forward to is yet another parachute payment. Perhaps they should take up sky-diving on a full-time basis.

Andy Key, their director of rugby, said the things he felt he had to say in the aftermath, papering over the cracks by highlighting the tenacity of his players' defence for long periods of the contest and berating the officials for denying Jonny Hepworth a second-half try on the grounds of obstruction. "It was perfectly legal," Key said, so decisively that for a split-second, he persuaded his audience that he was not clutching at straws. "There was nothing wrong with it whatsoever. The people in the middle have to understand the difference between obstruction and poor defence, and on that occasion, Gloucester were guilty of poor defence."

But clutching he most certainly was. Gloucester were guilty of many crimes and misdemeanours, dropping the ball and mistiming their passes so often that Leeds, barely capable of firing a shot, spent 50 minutes in the lead. Yet the West Countrymen still won away, thanks to three second-half tries, the last of which was claimed by the England centre Mike Tindall, who pretty much captured the mood of the occasion by pulling up with cramp in the act of scoring.

Tindall does not run in too many tries from distance these days, but in a contest as ponderous as this – 30 players running through cement in super slo-mo is the most accurate of available descriptions – he looked like Usain Bolt on extra vitamins.

"I thought he was outstanding for us," said his head coach, Bryan Redpath. "I gave the players a roasting at half-time because our performance in the first 40 minutes was both dreadful and unacceptable.

"But by the time I reached the dressing room, Mike was already making his feelings known. Sometimes, these things are better coming from within the team. They mean a little bit more somehow."

It may well be that Martin Johnson, the England manager, will pick Tindall, a week or so shy of his 31st birthday, for the meeting with the Wallabies at Twickenham early next month. Why not? Dan Hipkiss has been in and out of the Leicester side while the exciting Mathew Tait is not quite Johnson's cup of rosy.

By creating one try for James Simpson-Daniel with a clean outside break – what fool said the age of miracles had passed? – and scoring another from the best part of 40 metres, Tindall did not exactly harm his chances.

There again, if Australia bring Matt Giteau, Berrick Barnes and Adam Ashley-Cooper with them, they will pose more of a challenge than Leeds' Hepworth, Ceiron Thomas and a half-fit Seru Rabeni.

This was Rabeni's first appearance in a Leeds shirt and the big Fijian saw off his fellow Pacific islander, the Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, in the opening minutes. The two men clattered into each other and stayed down, Fuimaono-Sapolu with a dislocated finger so serious that the bone broke clean through the skin. Sadly, this was by some distance the least of his worries, given that his home village was among those comprehensively trashed by last week's tsunami.

Rabeni recovered sufficiently to play a full part, but try as he might, he could not summon the furies as he did during the 2007 World Cup, when Fiji knocked Wales out of the tournament and scared the living daylights out of South Africa.

If he can stay on the field long enough to play his way back into prime condition after months of injury trouble, he might conceivably give his new club an attacking edge of sorts. But yesterday's events suggested he will spend the vast majority of the campaign on the back foot, which is just the place South Seas centres prefer not to be.

Leeds' sole try had nothing to do with their most notable signing of the summer. It was scored early by the strong-running Tom Denton and was the direct result of a missed tackle by the Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell in open field.

Apart from Hepworth's disallowed score, they did not seriously threaten again, and when a side has so few attacking options, the novelty of tackling for 80 solid minutes tends to wear thin.

"We went into the contest confident that we had the right game plan and the people to execute it," insisted Key afterwards. He is equally confident that Leeds can find a way to survive. Blind faith? It is beginning to look like it. Already.

Scorers: Leeds Try: Denton. Conversion: Thomas. Penalty: Thomas. Gloucester Tries: Azam, Simpson-Daniel, Tindall. Conversion: Robinson. Penalties: Robinson (3).

Leeds: J Goodridge; L Blackett, J Hepworth, S Rabeni, R Welding (L Blackett, 35); C Thomas, A Gomarsall (S Mathie, 51); G Hardy (A Moreno, 75), P Nilsen (V Ma'asi, 60), J Gomez (T McGee, 58), E Lund, M Wentzel (capt), T Denton (C Clark, 60), H Fourie, A To'oala.

Gloucester: T Voyce; J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (capt), E Fuimaono-Sapolu (O Morgan, 11, F Burns, 38), L Vainikolo; N Robinson, R Lawson. A Dickinson, O Azam, P Doran-Jones (P Capdevielle, 65), D Attwood ( P Buxton, 72), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Hazell (A Qera, 44), A Eustace.

Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).