For a moment yesterday it seemed as if a bonus point was on and that everything would be possible. Gloucester could still win the group; European glory was still a possibility. But then reality intervened. Still, with Biarritz sent packing it was an awfully nice reality.
Indeed, Bryan Redpath called this Gloucester's "best performance of the season so far". Some might conclude that saying so about a victory over a side ravaged by injuries means that it cannot have been much of a season so far. Yet they would be on the miserable side of curmudgeonly. For this could prove to be so much more than a meaningless consolation.
Victory next week in Newport will guarantee Gloucester a quarter-final place in the Amlin Challenge Cup. True, it's not the Heineken Cup, but that does not necessarily mean it cannot refresh each and every part. Kingsholm will recall how the 2006 success in Europe's lesser competition heralded the era which threatened to be golden, with leagues topped and silverware all but lifted.
Of course, the Guinness Premiership dogfight is at the front of the club's priorities, but Redpath has at last began to resemble a confident coach. "This could be a massive stepping stone," he said. "It's been a tough six months, but we've learned."
It would be unwise to write off Biarritz's Heineken chances on the basis of this performance. The French club – who arrived as the only team left with a 100 per cent record – were without eight first-team regulars, although Redpath was in no mood to be humble. "I thought we would have won anyway," he said. "Over at their place we gave away three soft tries, but for 60 minutes we were well in it. So we knew were capable of it."
In truth, Biarritz's loss of quality did show. In that 42-15 win over Gloucester in October, Dmitri Yachvili and Damien Traille were the Cherry-and-White unpickers. Both were absent here, nursing knee injuries which may keep them out of the Six Nations. Iain Balshaw was also on the sick list, which was something of a shame for the Shed, which just loves to extend a welcome to old boys who have chosen pastures new.
Not that the one-time hope of English rugby would have seen much of the ball. On a pitch squelched by the slush, Gloucester ploughed on through and Biarritz bogged on down. Redpath was quick to praise his pack, yet it was in the three-quarters where his men truly shone. With Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu oustanding at inside-centre and with his midfield partner, Tim Molenaar, the epitomy of industry, they were commendably intent on flinging the ball wide. Hence the sight of Lesley Vainikolo enjoying himself.
Gloucester sought to use the big man and he did not disappoint. If his try in the 21st minute was a classic scramble for the line – after being set up by a nice interchange between two Alasdairs, Dickinson and Strokosch – then a couple of his hand-offs and barge-overs could be found in no textbook.
He also had a hand in the second try, and a deft hand at that. In the 67th minute Fuimaono-Sapolu produced the game's finest break, splitting Biarritz in half, jinking this way and that. Vainikolo was there, 10 metres out, to take it on and when he was held up he flicked th ball to Molenaar. When Nicky Robinson kicked the conversion the scoreboard read 23-3. With the game won, Redpath started to dream.
Gloucester needed the maximum return to keep the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in sight. But for Redpath it was a case of first things first. "At 16-3 it wasn't won, as a breakaway try could have made it 16-10," he said. "We did tell them to go for the four tries after Tim had scored. But we could not keep our hands on the ball."
In fact, Biarritz had the best of the final stages, with their No 8, Imanol Harinordoquy, picking up from a scrum and charging over. There was time for another try and a losing bonus point. But Laurent Tranier missed the conversion and the afternoon was done. As a result Biarritz may struggle to get a home seeding. Yes, this afternoon could yet turn out to be anything but an irrelevance.
Gloucester O Morgan; J Simpson-Daniel, T Molenaar (T Voyce, 70), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, L Vainkolo; N Robinson, R Lawson; A Dickinson (N Wood, 69) , S Lawson, G Somerville; D Attwood, A Brown; A Strokosch (L Narraway, 39), G Delve (capt), A Qera.
Biarritz P Couet-Lannes; I Bolakoro, A Mignardi, A Erinle, T Ngewnya; V Courrent (L Tranier, 70), Y Lesgourgues; E Coetzee, R Terrain (B August, 54), R Hugues (M Moala, 50), J Thion (capt), M Carizza (T Hall, 54), M Lund, I Harinodoquy, S Vahufolau (F Alexandre, 64).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).Reuse content