Gloucester slithered into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup yesterday as third seeds, with a bonus point victory over a determined and lively Ulster side.
The win earned them an all-important home tie against Munster in the last eight – Gloucester have now gone 21 games unbeaten in all competitions at Kingsholm – but the five-try victory was no romp. Nerve ends were shredded as the Irish side dominated the line-out and proved a handful at the set piece. To underline their grittiness Ulster even got over the Gloucester line in the dying seconds, but the lock Ryan Caldwell was deemed to have lost control of the ball.
The score would not have prevented Gloucester qualifying for the knockout stages for only the third time in the history of the tournament, but it would have dented pride even more had Ulster, who boasted as good a set of backs as Gloucester, got any closer.
There was a touch of irony in that Steve Williams, the caretaker coach of Ulster, had the dubious pleasure of seeing Akapusi Qera, a player he recommended to Gloucester last year, score two of the home side's tries.
Last season the Gloucester flanker, one of Fiji's World Cup stars, was playing for the National League One club Birmingham & Solihull, whose head coach just happened to be Williams. "This performance doesn't surprise me," said the former Wales lock. "We knew what he was capable of. Last year he coped well with the horrible conditions. And he played well today."
Dean Ryan, the Gloucester head coach, was relieved his side had muddled through Pool Two to top the table and earn crucial home advantage. "We didn't play very well. Over the last few weeks we have lost sight of our game. We made far too many errors. We were operating off scraps."
What scraps they were able to scavenge began when Mike Tindall set Qera up for his first try after 18 minutes, spinning out of an Ulster tackle, before finding the Fijian. Qera's second try in the 59th was again supplied by Tindall. Sandwiched in between was one from the blindside Alasdair Strokosch late in the first half. The replacement back-row forward Luke Narraway ran a great line and displayed great hands to run in the fifth.
Gloucester also had the Tongan Titan Lesley Vainikolo, who flew back from New Zealand last Thursday after attending the funeral of his father, Solomone. Vainikolo set up fellow England squad member Iain Balshaw for that all-important bonus-point try in the 71st minute.
Gloucester found Ulster difficult to shake off, not helped by the replacement fly-half Ryan Lamb missing three second-half conversions. Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble scored Ulster's three tries but Paddy Wallace found penalty kicks beyond him, despite knocking over all three conversions effortlessly.Reuse content