Once upon a time in the west, Gloucester finishing top of the league would have allowed the city to celebrate in the time-honoured fashion. The introduction of the play-off system, much beloved by treasurers, prolongs the agony. Yesterday Gloucester, who have been the creamy head of the Guinness Premiership throughout the season, won again, but as yet they have nothing to show for it.
Their consolation here was that the hardest of victories in a full-blooded West Country derby brought them a home tie in the play-off semi-finals. Gloucester will play Leicester at Kingsholm next Sunday. The home side will not need reminding of two facts: 12 months ago Gloucester were handsome "winners" of the league but were annihilated by the Tigers at Twickenham. The other pointeris that in their previous 23 Premiership matches here Gloucester have had one defeat – against Leicester in February.
Quite what Gloucester have left is anybody's guess. Yesterday their defence was magnificent, and it needed to be against a side who the previous week had put nine tries past Saracens. The same question applies to Bath, who lost second place in the table to the highwaymen otherwise known as Wasps, which means that the London club will have home advantage against them.
The two packs waged what looked like a full-scale war, and the rest let them get on with it. There was a solitary try, scored by James Simpson-Daniel in typical fashion. There would have been more but for some brilliant last-ditch tackling and severe disruption to both teams. Matt Stevens, the baby rhino of a Bath prop who has been in the form of his life, was replaced after 32 minutes. Careering into midfield, he crashed through the centre and was galloping towards the posts when Willie Walker pulled off a try-saving – or match-winning – tackle. It would have been one of the great scores from a prop forward.
As it was, Stevens did not get up for a couple of minutes and he was then replaced, although he appeared to be in two minds about whether to go off. Bath will learn today whether the England player will be available to face Wasps.
Gloucester also suffered a blow when Mike Tindall, who rarely finishes a game these days, limped off in the 18th minute after he had been set free by Iain Balshaw's run down the left. Tindall was probably thinking of saluting the Shed when he was caught from behind by the excellent Michael Claassens.
The England centre failed to recover and was replaced by Walker, who moved to full-back with Simpson-Daniel shifting to centre and Balshaw to the wing. Simpson-Daniel is not unaccustomed to playing in midfield and he took his try, in the 30th minute, in great style, flying through the Bath defence like a shooting star. His accel-eration caused the confusion.
Gloucester might have had another try when Lesley Vaini-kolo spectacularly set up Luke Narraway, but the referee had blown for a knock-on. Otherwise the tackling was unrelenting and everybody played their part, apart from the stand-offs.
The forwards delivered on a grand scale and what the match needed was somebody to provide the inspiration. Gloucester's Ryan Lamb kicked far too often, and much of it was aimless. Simpson-Daniel had done it once and was not given the chance to do it again. The occasion even got to the much older Butch James. A World Cup winner with South Africa, he was a disappointment.
Bath have prospered by keeping the ball alive and very attractive it is too, but James kicked too much and his attempt at a match-winning drop goal produced a daisy-cutter.
"We threw everything at Gloucester but we need to be a little smarter," Michael Lipman, the flanker, said. True, and the same applies to Gloucester. Yesterday they had only victory and a home tie on their mind.