Gloucester 8 Bath 6: Qera quickens pace of Gloucester's title march
Monday 12 May 2008
These little West Country love-ins used to have a kith-and-kin, nearest-and-dearest, enemy-next-door feel to them, with familiarity breeding the utmost contempt. Exotica? Not on your nelly. For years, the only outlandish thing about a Gloucester-Bath derby at Kingsholm was Stuart Barnes' garish "lucky" bow tie, and while the home supporters were indeed bamboozled by the thought that anyone might actually wear such an item in public, there was no confusion over the outside-half's body language when, on kicking a goal, he would bow before the seething inhabitants of the Shed, adding a two-fingered salute with a mischievous sweep of the arm.
"Are you watching, Stuart Barnes?" Predictably, the place was awash with these words, eagerly plucked from the Gloucester sporting hymnal, after the Cherry and Whites had squeezed out a victory that, for the third time in six years, secured top spot in the Premiership at the end of the regular season. "It was ever thus," said one diehard. "I suppose we'll go all the way to Twickenham and lose, as usual. But to beat those buggers on a day like this – if we die at Twickers, at least we'll die happy."
Yet Saturday was not a normal Saturday. There were the usual dyed-in-the-wool elements – hard scrummaging, ferocious tackling, a whiff of sulphur around the breakdown, tries rarer than hens' teeth – but the pace, the breadth of movement, the daredevil dash of the attacking play ... these were wholly new. And the man who revelled in, and defined, this newfangled rugby was not born within the sound of the Gloucester Cathedral bells, or dredged out of a swamp in the Forest of Dean, but imported from the Pacific island of Fiji, via Birmingham. You don't get more exotic than that.
Akapusi Qera delivered the performance of his life on Gloucester's open-side flank, disrupting and destroying Bath's offloading game with his up-and-at-'em defence and breaking the contest, in so far as it was ever broken, with a sublime, soft-handed pass that resulted in a ricocheting finish from James Simpson-Daniel. If he never sets foot on a field again, Qera will live long in the Kingsholm memory. Happily, his coach believes there is plenty to come. "He's a world-class player," said Dean Ryan, who would rather publish details of his own bank account in the programme than throw compliments around like confetti. "I've been saying it all season, because it was obvious from the moment we brought him to the club that he was a special talent.
"What impresses me most is his ability to fit into a structure, which runs against the stereotype of the Fijian player. He may have learnt his rugby in an unstructured environment, and when he goes back this summer to play for his country he may revert to that. But here he has proved he can adapt to the needs of the team. He's keeping Andy Hazell out of the side at the moment. It takes a good player to do that."
As far as anyone could tell, no member of the International Rugby Board council took the trouble to visit Kingsholm at the weekend. English club rugby, the one area of the game enjoying a boom, raises the blood pressure of the governing body for the wrong reasons, not the right ones.
But if the great and good should stumble across the match on television, they will be reminded firstly, the utter stupidity of attempting to fix the laws of the game when they are the very last things in need of repair; and secondly, the limitless potential of South Seas players who might, if they were not ghettoised by those richer nations who prefer to play their fixtures, and keep their money, among themselves, transform the balance of power at international level.
At least Martin Johnson made the trip. England's new manager did not enjoy everything he saw, for three of those expected to challenge successfully for starting places in New Zealand – the Gloucester centre Mike Tindall and the Bath front-rowers Lee Mears and Matt Stevens – failed to go the distance. Mears and Stevens were operating at the peak of their powers when their afternoons were cut short, and if they fail to recover the odds about their club winning the play-off semi-final at Wasps in six days will lengthen considerably.
There again, it was not all doom and gloom for old beetle-brows as he prepared to finalise the party for the All Black trip, details of which will be announced tomorrow. Matt Banahan, fast and powerful on Bath's left wing, looked ready for promotion to the squad; Simpson-Daniel, who contributed a try-saving tackle on the stampeding Stevens before scoring himself, turned in a hot performance under extreme pressure; Michael Lipman fought out a battle royal with Qera; Iain Balshaw played a heroic hand on the Gloucester barricades. And Steve Borthwick, the obvious candidate for the captaincy? He did not slacken for a second.
Johnson has riches beyond the dreams of avarice in some positions; in others, he will soon be making the acquaintance of Old Mother Hubbard. Certainly, he must pray that Mears, head and shoulders above every other hooker in England despite being vertically challenged, and Stevens, pure class at tight-head prop, are fit to travel. If the doctors tell them to stay home, God help us all.
Gloucester: Try Simpson-Daniel; Penalty Lamb. Bath: Penalties Barkley 2.
Gloucester: I Balshaw (M Foster, 22-34); J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (W Walker, 15), A Allen, L Vainikolo; R Lamb, R Lawson (G Cooper, 73); N Wood (A Dickinson, 48-73), A Titterrell (O Azam, 48), C Nieto, M Bortolami (capt), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Qera, G Delve (L Narraway, 58).
Bath: J Maddock; A Higgins, T Cheeseman (A Crockett, 67), O Barkley, M Banahan; A James, M Claassens; D Flatman, L Mears (P Dixon, 60), M Stevens (D Bell, 30), D Grewcock (P Short, 74), S Borthwick (capt), J Fa'amatuainu, M Lipman, D Browne (C Goodman, 80).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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