Muscular Gloucester give McGeechan anxieties

Gloucester 17 Ospreys 0
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The Independent Online

It is not unknown for British and Irish Lions players to cripple themselves the moment they set foot in the host country: think of Stuart Lane in South Africa, Paul Dean in Australia and Lawrence Dallaglio in New Zealand, all of whom failed to survive the opening match of their tour. Poor Lane failed to survive the first minute back in 1980, which really took some doing. But generally speaking, people get on the plane first and get injured second.

Ian McGeechan, seemingly the Lions coach in perpetuity, is beginning to wonder whether his players are intent on bringing things forward a little by dropping like flies ahead of selection. Gavin Henson, a certainty for the trip, found himself on crutches long before the end of the first Anglo-Welsh semi-final on Saturday, while Ian Gough, a fringe candidate, could be seen hobbling from the field inside half an hour. Shane Williams spent part of the game horizontalised, while Alasdair Strokosch finished it in la-la land, although he did not stop tackling for a moment. He's a hard case, that Strokosch.

With three rounds of Heineken Cup rugby still to come, not to mention a Guinness Premiership run-in showing all the signs of being bitterly contested by half-a-dozen teams boasting Lions contenders, McGeechan can only close his eyes, cross his fingers and pray. Not that his prayers are likely to be answered. Right now, it is difficult to imagine a more punishing club game than the one fought out between these two sides at the weekend, but by season's end, it is likely be remembered more as a vicarage tea party than as something out of Herodotus.

Gloucester's defence was something to behold. Strokosch and Gareth Delve, who really ought to qualify as a Lions bolter despite his lack of recent international rugby, were relentless in their appetite for work, work and more work; their partners in the back row, Andy Hazell followed by Akapusi Qera, were every bit as effective in their contrasting styles. The West Country club have laboured for most of the season in the absence of a specialist open-side flanker. Now, they have two of them. London buses indeed.

As it happens, Qera is very nearly the size of a London bus. By comparison, good players in the Ospreys pack – Alun Wyn Jones, Marty Holah, Ryan Jones – looked like mere passengers. The holders were not short of ball, still less of threatening territorial positions, but their attacks came to nothing.

Even when one of their number found a way through the first swarm of assailants, as Holah did late in the third quarter, Qera stretched out a hand to break his stride, thereby giving Olly Barkley the chance to complete a try-saving tackle.

And all the while, Ryan Lamb was opening up a lead for Gloucester with occasional shots at goal – a close-range penalty here, a dinky little drop-goal there. The home-grown outside-half is deeply unsettled at Kingsholm, for the very good reason that his coach, Dean Ryan, tends not to pick him if he can help it, especially now the All Black conjuror Carlos Spencer is on the payroll. But there has never been a question mark over his talent, his enthusiasm or his physical bravery, and while Lamb's decision-making was less than perfect here, he made enough happen to reinforce his reputation as a playmaker of rich promise.

He is not always diplomacy made flesh, but he tried hard to make the right noises in the minutes after Iain Balshaw wrapped up victory with an interception try at the death. Only when it was pointed out that he would not have been granted this opportunity but for Spencer being cup-tied did he let down his guard with a one-word response loaded with meaning. "Exactly," he said. It may well be that he plays his rugby away from Kingsholm next season, but he has no intention of going quietly.

Gloucester: Try Balshaw; Penalties Lamb (3); Drop-goal Lamb.

Gloucester: O Morgan; I Balshaw (G Cooper, 81), M Tindall (capt, M Watkins 32), A Allen, J Simpson-Daniel (O Barkley h-t); R Lamb, R Lawson; A Dickinson (C Nieto, 37), O Azam (S Lawson, 61), G Somerville, W James (M Bortolami, 70), A Brown (Bortolami, 5-14), A Strokosch, A Hazell (A Qera, 52), G Delve.

Ospreys: G Henson (J Spratt 40); T Bowe, S Parker, A Bishop (D Biggar 71), S Williams; J Hook, J Nutbrown (M Phillips, 53); P James (C Griffiths, 82), R Hibbard (H Bennett, 60), A Jones, I Gough (A W Jones, 28), A Lloyd (F Tiatia, 64), T Smith, M Holah, R Jones (capt).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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