Morgan injury overshadows Hook late show

Gloucester 24 Saracens 23

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The Independent Online

England’s preparations for the imminent Six Nations Championship were dealt a sickening blow in the West Country last night when Ben Morgan, whose eye-catching work at No 8 was one of the saving graces of a difficult red-rose autumn campaign, left the field on a stretcher after falliing awkwardly in a tackle from the ruthlessly combative Jacques Burger.

Morgan was clearly in a heightened state of discomfort and nobody in the 13,000 crowd imagined that the ankle injury was anything other than  serious.

It was of little consolation that he had been edging his personal set-to with Billy Vunipola, whom he overhauled midway through the November Test series. Morgan’s wider-ranging, slightly looser style, underpinned by the industrious scavenging of the in-form breakaway specialist Matt Kvesic, had been a feature of the game, and it was ironic that no sooner had he left the field, his replacement, Gareth Evans, played a major role in an exceptional long-range try for Callum Braley that put Gloucester ahead for the first time.

And they would finish ahead, just, thanks to an astonishing 55-metre penalty from their Welsh outside-half James Hook. More staggeringly still, it was the last kick of the match. Kingsholm, rapt and raucous in equal measure, had not seen anything like it for many a long season.

Mako Vunipola’s close-range try for Saracens  10 minutes from time, the predictable result of a well-engineered driving maul routine that had Gloucester in strife all evening, had looked like deciding a contest spiked with yellow cards, blighted by orthopaedic trauma – Nick Wood, the Gloucester prop, was also badly injured – and brimming with Gloucester adventure, largely snuffed out by iron Saracens defence. It needed something out of the ordinary to deny the Londoners, and Hook provided it.

The last time Gloucester had turned up their toes at Kingsholm on four consecutive occasions was very nearly two decades ago. As the first half unfolded, it became clear that the Cherry and Whites were doing their damnedest to ensure that the low point would not be revisited, despite losing two internationals, the lock Tom Palmer and the scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, to illness just before kick-off.

Sarries opened the scoring with a seventh-minute penalty try, awarded for a second successive maul collapse. Goode added the simple extras and also hit the mark with a couple of penalties, thereby cancelling out two precise left-sided strikes from Hook, who created the second of those opportunities himself with an exhilarating run down the opposite touchline. Almost as exciting was Dan Robson’s chip-and-chase try late in the half, which kept Gloucester at the races.

While the visitors started the second period a man down, David Strettle having seen yellow for a deliberate knock-on, things were level on the personnel front soon enough, the Gloucester lock Tom Savage going the same way for dragging down another of those visiting mauls, and when Billy Vunipola took immediate advantage by crossing from a close-range drive, there was clear blue water separating the sides.

Then, no more than five minutes later, came the injury to Morgan. Gloucester responded with all the guts in the world. Hook banged over another penalty and Braley raced clear for his try – the initial thrust was made by May, running ambitiously out of defence – and then took Sarries past the limit in the  final minutes to give Hook his glory shot.

Scorers: Gloucester – Tries: Robson, Braley. Conversion: Hook. Penalties: Hook 4. Saracens – Tries: Penalty try, B Vunipola, M Vunipola. Conversion: Goode. Penalties: Goode 2.

Gloucester: C Sharples (B Burns 72); D Halaifonua, M Atkinson, B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; J Hook, D Robson (C Braley 67); N Wood (Y Thomas 66), D Dawidiuk (R Hibbard 47), J Afoa, T Savage, E Stooke, S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic, B Morgan (G Evans 48).

Saracens: B Ransom; C Ashton, M Bosch (M Itoje 66), D Taylor (N Tompkins 61), D Strettle; A Goode, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 62); M Vunipola, J George, P Du Plessis, G Kruis (T Streather 72), J Hamilton, K Brown (capt, E Joubert 60), J Burger, B Vunipola.

Referee: J P Doyle (London).