Enterprise of Exiles and Gloucester promises an enthralling collision
Saturday 20 May 2006
If the Lord Mayor's Show in Cardiff turns out to be a forward-dominated affair - Munster do not possess a back division worthy of the name; Biarritz have an attacking unit boasting all the talents, but prefer not to use it - what comes after may prove the perfect antidote. Tomorrow's European Challenge Cup final between Gloucester and London Irish at the Twickenham Stoop features two sides at the forefront of what might be called English rugby's All Black movement, which embraces the theory that tries are better than penalties, that handling is better than kicking, that one crisp miss-pass in midfield is better than two months' worth of rolling mauls.
This is peculiar, to say the least. By tradition, Gloucester teams suffer from agoraphobia if the ball goes beyond the scrum-half; indeed, Mike Burton and John Fidler must still be choking on their late-night vindaloos at the thought of Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen and James Simpson-Daniel tripping the light fantastic in front of the Kingsholm Shed, as they have done to such effect recently.
London Irish, meanwhile, could not buy themselves a try until Brian Smith, a lavishly gifted footballer during his playing days, freed them from their psychological straitjacket by giving the likes of Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau the run of the Madejski Stadium. With Riki Flutey and Mike Catt cooking things up in midfield, the quickest back three in the Premiership have had themselves a ball of late, and conventional wisdom has it that ball is all they need tomorrow to clap hands on the trophy.
Yet their heavy defeat in last weekend's Premiership semi-final at Leicester cannot be lightly dismissed. Smith does not believe the torments suffered at Welford Road will have too negative an effect on his players -"Despite that result, we've turned things around in terms of our attacking play, moving from scoring the fewest league tries last year to scoring the highest number this time," said the coach yesterday - but it is impossible to play the Exiles way without high levels of confidence. Some of that confidence must surely have evaporated as a result of the mauling six days ago.
Gloucester are entirely upbeat. They, too, lost last time out, but they could hardly have done so more gloriously, having taken Wasps to the last strand of wire in a winner-take-all finale to the regular season. Like their opponents, they are lethal on the counter. Unlike their opponents, they feel very good indeed about themselves right now.
"This game is very important to our squad as a whole, but particularly for the younger guys," said the club captain, Adam Balding. "When young players come into the first team, they have to learn. Performing well in a game like this is all about control, about making the right choices under pressure. No amount of training offers the gains you get from taking part in a game like this."
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