If, as the livid marks above his eyebrow suggest, Dean Ryan has spent much of the last few weeks banging his head against a brick wall, the frustrations of rugby life have not been restricted to the performance of his players, exasperating though it may have been. The "Big Bad Wolf" is equally tetchy about the treatment he has received from the fourth estate – "There has been an awful lot of shit thrown around recently," he said, politely, "but we seem to be top of the Premiership, which, in my quiet moments, I find quite amusing" – and has deep reservations about the England hierarchy.
Everyone with eyes to see has reservations on that subject, but Ryan's concerns are very specific indeed: namely, the decision of Martin Johnson, the national manager, to release a couple of front-line internationals back to London Irish for this important game at Kingsholm while keeping three of Ryan's Gloucester players of equal stature under lock and key.
"I had no problem with Delon Armitage and Nick Kennedy being made available for Irish if the England selectors wanted to take a look at them in a competitive environment," he said. "That's the way selection should work. But I won't be too happy if it turns out my three [Olly Morgan, Mike Tindall and Luke Narraway] aren't involved against Italy this coming weekend. Under the terms of our agreement, England should have named a 22-man squad for the Italy game last Tuesday and allowed the others to return to their clubs. What actually happened isn't part of the agreement at all."
According to the great and good of Premier Rugby, the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation, Ryan was spot on: like him, they could not understand why England hadn't done the things they were supposed to do. For its part, the Rugby Football Union yesterday rejected any suggestion that it was playing fast and loose with the small print. There again, Johnson drove the proverbial coach and horses through the agreement when he dropped the Leicester wing Tom Varndell from his elite player squad before the autumn internationals, instead of waiting until the start of last month. Just at the moment, the eight-year deal between the clubs and the governing body looks like a one-way street running straight to Twickenham's front door.
Gloucester have been leaving their own door open of late and seen their Heineken Cup ambitions ransacked as a consequence, so this return to bread-and-butter activity against the Premiership leaders was a serious test of their mettle. Uncomfortable in the knowledge that a third defeat in five league outings might well knock the stuffing out of his side, Ryan watched the first half unfold in grisly fashion – the West Countrymen were 18-3 to the bad after 39 minutes – and headed for the dressing room in the darkest of moods. Afterwards, he suggested that he had remained calm, cool and collected during his interval address. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.
London Irish played some lovely stuff in that opening period, but my, how their hosts made it easy for them. Tackles were missed, horribly, as Adam Thompstone capitalised on Rory Lawson's fumble to claim the opening try, and the defensive work was less than brilliant 10 minutes later when Topsy Ojo crossed for an unnervingly straightforward score in the right corner.
The home line-out was shot to pieces, the tactical kicking game was utterly one-sided in favour of the visitors and, by way of putting the tin lid on it, Iain Balshaw was having one of his peculiar days on Gloucester's right wing.
Yet two penalties from Olly Barkley in stoppage time meant Gloucester turned round only nine points down, rather than 15, and a couple of substitutions by Ryan – Andy Hazell for Apo Satala at open-side flanker, Nick Wood for Alasdair Dickinson at loose-head prop – tilted the balance further.
Suddenly, the international No 8 Gareth Delve, fresh back from injury, was playing like a world-beater, driving deep into the heart of the visitors' fringe defence and giving Barkley the time and space to seize the territorial initiative. In the first half, London Irish's busy scrum-half Paul Hodgson had been the best player on the field. Delve comfortably took the honours in the second, even though Hodgson continued to operate at a high level.
There was a good deal of ferocity in the exchanges as Gloucester closed in on their opponents, much of it emanating from the London Irish No 8 Chris Hala'ufia, whose tackling was – how shall we put it? – magnificently Tongan. "I'm sure there will be some interesting viewing for the citing commissioner," said Toby Booth, the visiting coach. "I think I'll keep my phone switched off."
It was Booth's expression that told the tale in the final quarter, as Barkley took advantage of a variety of London Irish misdemeanours to chip away with his left boot. With Seilala Mapusua in the cooler – the Samoan centre went off his feet at a ruck and failed to roll away – the Gloucester backs had room to move, and Balshaw would have scored but for a spectacular cover tackle from the corner-flagging Hodgson.
Sadly for the scrum-half, his efforts were in vain. Five minutes later, as the clock ticked past the 80, Delve twice bludgeoned his way down the short side to open up the field, and when Anthony Allen's intelligent miss-pass found Balshaw in space, the deed was finally done.
Could this be the making of Gloucester's season? "We can't hide from the pressure and we can't pretend we're playing our best rugby," Ryan said, "but we are top." He'll settle for that, battered forehead or no battered forehead.
Gloucester: Try Balshaw; Penalties Barkley 6. London Irish: Tries Thompstone, Ojo; Conversion Hewat; Penalties Hewat 3.
Gloucester: W Walker; I Balshaw, H Trinder, A Allen, J Simpson-Daniel; O Barkley, R Lawson (D Lewis 48, R Lamb 51); A Dickinson (N Wood, 61), O Azam (capt), G Somerville, A Eustace (M Bortolami, 51), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Satala (A Hazell, 42), G Delve.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, A Thompstone; P Hewat (M Catt, 73), P Hodgson; C Dermody, D Paice (D Coetzee, 71), T Lea'aetoa (R Skuse 48, A Corbisiero 77), N Kennedy (J Hudson, 71), R Casey (capt), R Thorpe, D Danaher, C Hala'ufia.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content