As the mighty Mr Springsteen has been known to sing: "Trust none of what you hear and less of what you see." Leicester, routinely dismissed – not least by themselves – as being no better than average, yesterday became the first team to win a Premiership semi-final on enemy territory, beating Gloucester in one of the more compelling games of rugby likely to be played anywhere this side of Armageddon. Once again, the West Countrymen finished top of the heap in the regular season. Once again, they end up with nothing.
Gloucester's legions will swear blind that the result was a travesty, but Leicester made such a mockery of their self-confessed shortcomings that they will travel to Twickenham in 12 days with an ocean of optimism where their pessimism used to be. And should they retain the title by beating Wasps, what happens to Marcelo Loffreda, their much-criticised coach? Said to be on the verge of the heave-ho for almost as long as he has been at the club, the Argentine will suddenly be as fireproof than a Formula One track marshal.
He will feel better about life than his opposite number, that's for sure. Dean Ryan had some hard things to say about his side in the immediate aftermath of defeat, and intends to ask harder questions of himself. "If we're forever going to be a side on a learning curve, I'm getting my job wrong," he said. "This wasn't about pressure. We spent the two previous weeks playing what amounted to knockout rugby, two weeks in which we were on-script and accurate. Today, we were the opposite. I'm losing some enthusiasm, because these players can't keep on waiting to be told what to do. So the issue is this: do they come to terms with some of the things that happened out there, or look for a cop-out?"
One of the things that happened was a decisive drop goal in stoppage time from Andy Goode, who has a habit of turning up like the baddest penny in town to win big games for his colleagues. Yet if Goode played a prominent role in this slice of blood-and-thunder drama, it was the visiting stand-off's opposite number who did more than most to swing it Leicester's way. Gloucester were 22-13 ahead just past the hour when Ryan Lamb made a horrible hash of a clearance kick by hoisting it vertically into the stratosphere. Iain Balshaw attempted to make some sense of the ensuing chaos in the 22, but his pass cannoned off a post and into the arms of Aaron Mauger, who grounded for a try that would not have looked out of place in one of Rik Mayall's wilder comedy projects.
Lamb, playing on his 22nd birthday, yearned for atonement with every fibre of his being, and a couple of late breaks had Leicester scrambling; indeed, one of them resulted in a successful drop from Willie Walker, which gave Gloucester a two-point advantage with the minutes slipping away. But his earlier error had changed the nature of the contest, and he grew less convincing as the stomach knots tightened. If the England manager, Martin Johnson, is tempted to expose him to the rigours of the New Zealand winter as a replacement for the stricken Danny Cipriani, he might do well to think again. Lamb will be a diamond of a player, but he needs another year of cutting and shining.
Ryan would have preferred to field an unchanged side for the latest biggest game of the season at Kingsholm. His team had performed strongly in winning at Wasps and inching past Bath, and when a campaign reaches its "squeaky bum" stage, to borrow a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson, a sense of continuity is precious indeed. Unfortunately, the blue-blooded centre Mike Tindall failed a fitness test just before kick-off, having attended a round of royal nuptials the previous day. Caviar can play havoc with a man's health, apparently.
The loss of Tindall's defensive expertise hurt the West Countrymen, not least because Dan Hipkiss put a dead few months behind him with some characteristic leg-pumping in the most congested parts of the field, fracturing the Gloucester line and giving his loose forwards the targets they craved. In attack, though, Gloucester were dangerous enough. James Simpson-Daniel was particularly impressive, as per usual: a couple of times, he entered Alesana Tuilagi's orbit and was comprehensively smithereened, but for the most part, he threatened Leicester with his pace while bamboozling them with his footwork. Just at the moment, he is one hell of an act.
So too, though, are a Leicester side scorned. Hell hath no fury, and all that. The Midlanders were on the rough end of things for long periods of time, especially in a first half where the penalty count against them rose faster than a Tory opinion poll lead. They had two men – the No 8 Jordan Crane and the scrum-half Harry Ellis – in the sin bin simultaneously, Martin Corry was having a tough day in the contact areas and their scrum was suffering. Yet the worse it got, the more they fought like dogs. Crane's tackle count was vast, and would have been more monstrous still but for the 10 minutes he spent in the cooler.
Gloucester reached the interval 12-3 ahead and stood at 15-6 after an exchange of three-pointers between Lamb and Goode early in the second half, but the visitors made the first decisive statement with a bullocking try from the outsized Tuilagi. There was an immediate response from the home side, Akapusi Qera flummoxing Tuilagi with some Fijian sleight of hand before releasing Simpson-Daniel to the line, but with Goode fancying his chances from anywhere and everywhere and the Leicester pack scenting a kill, there was always a chance Gloucester would let their nerve and discipline slip. So it came to pass. The Cherry and Whites will not recover from this in a hurry. The Tiger-striped Midlanders will revel in it for many a long day.
Gloucester: Try Simpson-Daniel; Conversion Lamb; Penalties Lamb 5; Drop goal Walker. Leicester: Tries Tuilagi, Mauger; Conversions Goode 2; Penalties Goode 3; Drop goal Goode.
Gloucester: W Walker; I Balshaw, J Simpson-Daniel, A Allen, L Vainikolo; R Lamb, R Lawson; N Wood, A Titterrell (O Azam, 55), C Nieto, M Bortolami (capt, W James, 66), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Qera, G Delve.
Leicester: G Murphy (S Vesty, 29-36); A Tuilagi, D Hipkiss, A Mauger, T Varndell; A Goode, H Ellis; B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 55), M Davies (G Chuter, 60), J White, M Wentzel (R Blaze, 80), B Kay, M Corry (capt), B Herring (T Croft, 55), J Crane.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content