Sickening defeats are not exactly unheard of down Kingsholm way, as Dean Ryan is heartily sick of admitting. Early yesterday evening, he looked even more green about the gills than usual.
Gloucester are not quite out of the Heineken Cup as a result of this stomach-churning reverse at the hands of a side forced to play a man short for the best part of an hour, but their head coach knows they have no more than the most tentative of fingerholds on qualification for the knock-out stage – qualification he must have regarded as a minimum requirement at the start of the campaign.
If déjà vu manifested itself in liquid form, it would have oozed from Ryan's every pore. "Something has to change," acknowledged the former England No 8. "We can't carry on being a good side for 80-odd per cent of a game and then getting found out when it matters. We need to work out when we play, how we play and where we play. This isn't new to us – we talk about it all the time – but there never seems to be any progress. It's not a mental issue; it's about us not being good enough at certain parts of the game that happen to be very important, especially in this competition, where physicality, discipline and tactical kicking are the things that decide matches."
The Blues were certainly the more physically intimidating: as well as having two barnstorming No 8s in the contrasting shapes of Andrew Powell and Xavier Rush, they brought with them a back division that would not have looked out of place on Easter Island.
They also won the kicking game, by a distance. "Their two periods of intense pressure both came from us losing a kicking duel," Ryan said. "We did the wrong things. They did the right ones."
However, the visitors could not reasonably be held up as paragons of discipline, having lost their wing, Tom James, to a red card in the opening half-hour. James was dismissed for butting Olivier Azam, the Gloucester hooker, whose fall to the floor might have earned him a place at RADA.
While David Young, the Blues coach, admitted James was "technically guilty" – not a euphemism that would have cut much ice with Mr Justice Cocklecarrot – he was less than impressed by the Gielgudesque nature of the victim's reaction.
"When I was playing, hookers didn't go down quite that easily," he said. "It's not something we want in the game. We don't need people rolling around like footballers." With James gone, the Blues' back three became a back two. Did Gloucester take advantage of this gold-plated advantage? Did they heck.
At no point did the Welshmen feel the need to withdraw Martyn Williams from their pack to man the barricades out wide. In fact, the Blues spent the vast majority of the last 50-odd minutes looking more likely than their hosts to score a try.
Two minutes into stoppage time, they did score one. Unsurprisingly, it was the product of a poor defensive kick, this time by the Gloucester full-back Willie Walker, drafted in when the England contender Olly Morgan failed a fitness test the day before the contest. The Blues won the ensuing line-out deep in the home 22, setting up a series of punishing drives towards the right corner and finally creating the space for Bradley Davies, their extremely substantial replacement lock, to stretch over for the touchdown. It was no more than they deserved.
Earlier in the half, they thought Jason Spice had found a way over the line. Alan Lewis, the referee, awarded the score, and then unawarded it in order to give the television match official a look. The TMO decided Alex Brown had prevented Spice grounding the ball and ordered a five-metre scrum instead.
As so often in the recent past, not least in their Premiership semi-final with Leicester last spring, Gloucester's best spell came early. James Simpson-Daniel, back from the latest of his many injuries, might have scored with the first serious attack of the game had he not over-egged things with an attempted back-hand flick to Walker, and with Leigh Halfpenny, the new wizard of the Welsh back division, looking less than dependable on the goal-kicking front, Olly Barkley's penalties just kept the home side ahead.
But Halfpenny hit the spot with a couple of important three-pointers in an intense second period. The first of them came after the kicker himself was shoved by Marco Bortolami, who, being Italian, was probably unaware of this new take on a famous old English pub game. The second resulted from Lewis's decision to penalise a bitterly frustrated Luke Narraway on the floor, and cut Gloucester's lead to 12-9. From there on in, the West Countrymen were riding for a fall.
On Friday, they travel to the Basque country in search of a bonus-point victory over Biarritz. Even if they achieve it – and it has to be said that while the Frenchmen are a long way off their game, they rarely capitulate in front of their own – there is no guarantee of a quarter-final place. It looks for all the world as though Ryan's men will come up short yet again.
"Yes, there will have to be changes of personnel, especially in the long term," he said, darkly. "I don't mind coming under scrutiny myself, if someone wants to do it. That's out of my hands. Change to the playing squad is in my hands and it's something I'll have to think through. We can't keep saying the same things every time we lose a big game."
Déjà vu indeed.
Gloucester: Penalties Barkley 4. Cardiff Blues: Try Davies; Conversion Halfpenny; Penalties Halfpenny 3.
Gloucester: W Walker; I Balshaw, M Watkins (A Allen, 65), O Barkley, J Simpson-Daniel; R Lamb, G Cooper (D Lewis, 64); A Dickinson (N Wood, 57), O Azam (A Titterrell, 72), C Nieto, M Bortolami (W James, 47), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Satala, L Narraway (capt).
Cardiff Blues: L Halfpenny; G Thomas, T Shanklin, J Roberts, T James; N Robinson, J Spice; G Jenkins, G Williams (R Thomas, 73), G Powell (T Filise, 61), D Jones (B Davies, 64), S Morgan, M Molitika, M Williams (capt), A Powell (X Rush, 69).
Referee: A Lewis (Irl).Reuse content