It is a rugby truth as old as the hills – if you don’t have a scrum, you don’t win the game – and the story of Gloucester at the set-piece has been told so often, it might have originated in the Old Testament. The West Countrymen did virtually everything necessary to win Sunday’s close-run thing at Welford Road, contesting breakdown possession with a rare passion and attacking boldly from deep through a button-bright back division. The bit they didn’t do? Yes, you guessed it.
Leicester, scratching around for form as a starving man might rummage his way through a restaurant bin, pinched the points late on with a Toby Flood penalty from chipping-wedge range – the result, needless to say, of a Gloucester implosion at scrum time.
Nigel Davies, the visitors’ rugby director, had no beef with the decision, although he was less than impressed by the previous call by the officials, who decided that scrum-half Dan Robson had been guilty of a cockeyed feed and awarded the Midlanders a crucial free-kick. “That was wrong,” Davies said. “By today’s standards it was clearly straight.”
Straight is straight – or, indeed, not straight – whatever day of the week it may be, although Davies had a point of sorts, given that a subsequent put-in by the Leicester half-back David Mélé was just about as squint as it gets. But the Gloucester director did not make a massive issue of it. How could he, given the five full penalties and two free kicks his men conceded at the set-piece?
“When you’re under as much scrum pressure as we were,” he acknowledged, “it’s a very difficult game to play. Given parity in that area, we’d certainly have won.”
With the notable exception of Mathew Tait at full-back – the lost soul of English rugby looks uncannily like a World Cup contender when he plays like this, and his clean-cut try 12 minutes from time was just reward for another eye-catching performance – the reigning champions’ most effective performers were to be found in the front row.
Marcos Ayerza, the loose-head specialist from Argentina, may have been out-trundled by Sila Puafisi around the field, especially when the Tongan was serving up South Seas specials in the tackle, but he lorded it in the tight. So too did Logovi’i Mulipola, who made life excruciatingly difficult for Nick Wood, the most able of Gloucester’s scrummagers (which isn’t saying a lot, admittedly).
And then there was Tom Youngs, a British Lions Test hooker last summer but now playing second fiddle to Dylan Hartley in the England set-up, largely because his line-out throwing is about as leak-proof as the Somerset Levels. Youngs was not faultless on the “darts” front yesterday but his ball-carrying was exceptional, not least when he ran smack into a pincer movement staged by Puafisi and the open-side flanker Matt Kvesic and blew away the pair of them with a low-slung scuttle of startling power.
Gloucester expected much of this, if not all of it, and to their credit, they came up with clever ways of minimising the damage. They lost nothing to their hosts in the back-five department, where the impressive young lock Elliott Stooke and the Tongan short-side flanker Sione Kalamafoni put in almighty shifts, and they offered genuine pace out wide through Martyn Thomas and Charlie Sharples. It was the latter who scored the opening try, 10 minutes into the second period, after excellent approach work from Ryan Mills and Henry Trinder in midfield.
Unfortunately, the full-back Rob Cook fluffed the conversion, which would have given his side the luxury of a seven-point lead. Cook has changed his kicking habits of late, to the point that he is now a deadly dull traditionalist rather than a post-modern eccentric. He did land one penalty yesterday, but was well short with another. Maybe he should revert to his old style, which made him look like a cross between a Cossack dancer and a victim of dysentery.
As a result of this win, Leicester remain within touching distance of a top-four finish in the Premiership, although as their deeply dissatisfied director of rugby Richard Cockerill pointed out afterwards: “If we play like that against a side in better form than Gloucester, we’ll lose.”
The Cherry and Whites, meanwhile, have precious little to interest them in the final third of the league campaign. They will not be going down; neither will they be challenging for European qualification, whatever that may turn out to mean.
Under the circumstances, it is far from clear how Davies will use Freddie Burns, his Leicester-bound international outside-half – or whether he will use him at all, come to that. Mills played pretty well at No 10 and stayed on the field for the duration, while Burns looked on from the bench. “It’s not always about Freddie; it’s about what’s best for the team,” said the man in charge. Ouch.
Scorers: Leicester: Try Tait; Penalties Flood 2. Gloucester: Try Sharples; Penalty Cook.
Leicester: M Tait; V Goneva, M Smith (B Scully 58), A Allen, A Thompstone; T Flood (capt), B Youngs (D Mele 69) ; M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins 79), L Mulipola (F Balmain 77), E Slater, G Kitchener (L Deacon 47), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom 52).
Gloucester: R Cook; C Sharples, H Trinder, M Tindall (capt), M Thomas; R Mills, D Robson; N Wood (Y Thomas 58), D Dawidiuk (H Edmonds 69), S Puafisi (R Harden 47), E Stooke, W James (J Hudson 69), S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic, B Morgan.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).