Gloucester 36 London Irish 34: Forrester's extra dimension defeats Irish at the end of magical marathon
Monday 22 May 2006
The European Challenge Cup may be unwieldy, unsponsored and deeply unloved by those clubs who fail to make the final, but by heaven, it has its moments. Yesterday's contest between two of the Guinness Premiership's more adventurous teams lasted two hours, every minute of it played in strength-sapping wind and rain, yet in the closing stages of extra time, James Forrester produced something so special - so wildly above and beyond anything his colleagues had a right to expect, or his opponents had reason to fear - that it was worthy of the winning of any tournament in world rugby.
Forrester was not alone in creating Gloucester's decisive try - James Simpson-Daniel and Anthony Allen both played a significant hand as the nerve-endings throbbed ever more agonisingly - but the slide-rule quality of his grubber kick into the in-goal area, and the astonishing pace he showed to reach the ball millimetres inside the boundary of the pitch, was something to behold. And to think the England selectors have decided against taking him to Australia for next month's Test matches.
"It is still a blur," the No 8 said after fielding the time-honoured requests to talk his audience through the try. "I left the pitch thinking it was a good effort, but now I've seen it on the television, it seems it was a little clumsy. I was in a panic, because the in-goal area was nowhere near as big as I thought when I put in the kick. It worked out, just. There wasn't much room to spare."
Back in his beanpole days, Forrester startled rival forwards - and backs, come to that - by running around like Michael Johnson rather than Martin Johnson, and repeatedly conjured up game-breaking feats in important matches, most of them involving long-legged gallops of 60 metres or more. He is not quite so rapid these days, for he has beefed up physically and tightened up stylistically. He will never be a Martin Corry type, all sweat and snarl. He is, however, better able to stand his ground in the heavy traffic now than at any point in the last five years.
That much was obvious throughout yesterday's game at the Twickenham Stoop. London Irish controlled the forward exchanges for much of the encounter, repeatedly forcing one of the more lightweight packs in Gloucester's annals onto the back foot. As a result, Forrester absorbed more than his fair share of punishment, as did his closest collaborator, the scrum-half Peter Richards. Yet these were the very men who were prepared to play it off the cuff when the opportunity arose, even at the last knockings, when exhaustion was raging through the playing population like a plague.
Not that London Irish will easily come to terms with the fact that the game went to extra time in the first place. Twelve points adrift at 31-19 after Simpson-Daniel's interception try 11 minutes from the end of the statutory 80, they dredged up enough energy to burrow beneath the Gloucester barricades for two late tries: the first a distinctly dodgy effort credited to Olivier Magne; the second a television official's call on behalf of Robbie Russell. This left Barry Everitt with a kickable conversion for the trophy. He missed, hooking his shot across the sticks. Gloucester were barely alive, but still breathing at 31-31.
Everitt did hit the spot eight minutes into the additional period when Olivier Azam was penalised on the floor, but following Forrester's dramatic reclamation of the advantage, he miscued a drop-goal attempt when an ounce of patience would have earned him a better position from which to launch it. Juan Leguizamon, a considerable force at the epicentre of the Exiles' forward effort, also tried a drop - from the halfway line. Needless to say, it bisected the A316 rather than the posts. Whatever the Argentinian loose forward may be, he is no Hugo Porta, still less a Diego Maradona.
On balance, Gloucester just about deserved their first title since winning the Powergen Cup, across the road at Twickenham in 2003. The conditions helped neither side, but while the West Countrymen had Ryan Lamb pulling the strings at outside-half, they were the more ambitious of the sides. There were two Cherry and White tries in the first half: a sharp finish from Mark Foster, chasing Mike Tindall's intelligent kick to the left corner; a more prosaic one from Andy Hazell, driving away from a line-out with a couple of grisly tight forwards for company. Irish managed one of their own through Delon Armitage, but this was more a consequence of Rob Thirlby's frailty under the high ball than any great brilliance on the part of the Exiles.
"This group of players will be around for a long time, and they'll be involved in some big games," said Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach. "We are where we are. On the strength of watching the other final in Cardiff, I don't believe, speaking as of now, that we would have coped with the power of either Munster or Biarritz. I think we'll cope next season, though."
Ryan has five months to prepare. The Heineken Cup, loved by everybody, arrives at Kingsholm in October.
Gloucester: R Thirlby (J Bailey, 82); J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall, A Allen, M Foster; R Lamb (L Mercier, 47), P Richards; P Collazo (O Azam, 80), M Davies, J Forster (G Powell, 46), J Pendlebury (A Eustace, 78), A Brown, P Buxton (capt), A Hazell (L Narraway, 78), J Forrester.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, M Catt (capt), R Flutey (G Tiesi, 80), S Tagicakibau; B Everitt, P Hodgson (B Willis, 90); N Hatley (D Paice, 40), R Russell, R Skuse (M Collins, 60; P Murphy, 80), R Casey, N Kennedy, K Roche, O Magne (D Danaher, 78), J Leguizamon.
Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).
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