Gomarsall finds Bristol on bruising form

Gloucester 21 Bristol 0
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The Independent Online

Rumour has it that the Premiership fraternity are already conspiring to prevent Bristol, short-odds favourites for the National League One title, being promoted next season. Talk about a coalition of the self-serving. On the basis of the evidence produced at Kingsholm on Saturday, when the Memorial Grounders scrapped until the last bitter second of a bone-and-gristle quarter-final derby that gave the ailing Powergen Cup a whole range of reasons to feel better about itself, a Premiership without Richard Hill's highly organised side would be like the Napoleonic Wars without the Prussians.

Rumour has it that the Premiership fraternity are already conspiring to prevent Bristol, short-odds favourites for the National League One title, being promoted next season. Talk about a coalition of the self-serving. On the basis of the evidence produced at Kingsholm on Saturday, when the Memorial Grounders scrapped until the last bitter second of a bone-and-gristle quarter-final derby that gave the ailing Powergen Cup a whole range of reasons to feel better about itself, a Premiership without Richard Hill's highly organised side would be like the Napoleonic Wars without the Prussians.

Several battalions of Bristol supporters made the 40-mile trip to Castle Grim and succeeded in generating an atmosphere reminiscent of the very best days of this ancient fixture. The trains were so packed, scores of travelling cognoscenti were left fuming on railway platforms the length and breadth of south Gloucestershire. Some decided to swank it by hiring limousines - yes, the grand old club has an affluent feel to it these days, after years of slumming it as professional rugby's equivalent of the Big Issue - and those who were suddenly abandoned by drivers who decided that an alcohol-fuelled return trip might be more trouble than it was worth still managed to sardine themselves into the Kingsholm Shed in time for kick-off.

Outside in the car park, influential backers of the club could be heard stating categorically that if their boys win the league title, they will not take "no" for an answer from a Premiership élite petrified of losing Harlequins or Saracens or Northampton, all of whom have splashed out millions over the last nine years and are more than a little reluctant to be rewarded for their efforts by a feet-first plummet through the trapdoor. Bristol insist they will meet the promotion criteria at every stage, claiming to have a barrister's assurances to this effect.

And on the field? The visitors were equally impressive there, despite the blank they registered on the scoreboard. They had the quickest player on view in Marko Stanojevic, who put the fear of God into Gloucester early on with a fleet-footed raid down the right that might easily have resulted in the opening try of the match, and they had two of the three most effective loose forwards in Jim Brownrigg and Joe El Abd, their captain. (The third was Jake Boer, the Gloucester captain, whose influential efforts at close quarters while Bristol were running hot in the first half were at the heart of the favourites' victory).

Each of those Bristol players looked capable of doing the business at Premiership level, especially Brownrigg, whose footballing skills have never been less than top-notch. The same might be said for Ed Pearce, the outsized lock who, during a previous life as a Gloucester player, was popularly accused of training like Tarzan but playing like Jane. There was not much of the feminine about him on Saturday; indeed, with the excellent James Hobson, whose aggressive performance in the front row took no account of Gloucester's own dark reputation in that area, the Bristol pack as a whole were blissfully unintimidated.

"I think 21-0 flatters Gloucester," pronounced El Abd, who upset the fiery Adam Eustace early on with his gundog habits in the loose and forced the Test flanker Andy Hazell to aim a flailing right fist in his direction during the second half. "I feel we matched them in most areas - certainly we weren't out-muscled by their forwards - and if we hadn't conceded a pretty soft try early in the second half, we might have finished far closer to them. I know we weren't meant to win this game, but to tell you the truth, I'm disappointed we didn't."

The try that got El Abd's goat fell to Andy Gomarsall on 46 minutes. Gloucester were nine points up, courtesy of three Henry Paul penalties, when the Bristol front row pinched one against the head at a defensive scrummage. The scrum-half Ross Blake, lively enough for most of the game but prone to the odd lapse under pressure, was taken entirely by surprise at this bewildering turn of events and Gomarsall reacted smartly to complete the score.

Not that Gomarsall enjoyed the most comfortable of afternoons. In urgent need of a high-class performance ahead of the Six Nations Championship - there are reasons to suspect that both Harry Ellis of Leicester and Matt Dawson of Wasps will beat him to a place in the squad for England's trip to Cardiff on Saturday week - he took a fearful smack in the eye shortly after scoring his try and headed forlornly for the tunnel, where he promptly collided with a security guard and then walked smack into a metal post. Somewhat confusingly, he returned with a bandage on his hamstring - presumably, he had attempted to apply it to his head and missed - and carried on until the last knockings, when he headed for the dressing room once again.

Clearly in considerable discomfort, he at least managed to help his side wrap things up with an intelligent chip that eluded the back-pedalling Adam Billig but fell perfectly for Alex Brown, one of the few Gloucester forwards who played anything like. This final score did indeed flatter the Cherry and Whites, who are struggling to string two passes together and appear to have gone soft up front. Even their coach, the distinctly unsoft Dean Ryan, was in conciliatory mood afterwards.

"Anyone coming up into the Premiership will, in an ideal world, bring something better to the table than was there originally," said Ryan, who moved to Gloucester from Bristol three years ago. "If they win promotion, Bristol will add something, I think. They're a big club, aren't they?" They certainly were a big club. Given half a chance by the top-flight cabal, they will be so again.

Gloucester: Tries Gomarsall, Brown; Conversion Paul; Penalties Paul 3.

Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Garvey, T Fanolua, H Paul, S Kiole; D McRae, A Gomarsall (A Page, 52-58; 78); C Bezuidenhout (N Wood, 74), M Davies, T Sigley, A Eustace (P Buxton, 61), A Brown, J Boer (capt), A Balding, A Hazell (J Forrester, 74).

Bristol: S Marsden (J Pritchard, 81); M Stanojevic, R Higgitt, S Cox, L Nabaro (A Billig, 69); J Strange, R Blake; D Hilton, S Nelson (N Clark, 63), J Hobson (A Clarke, 56), E Pearce (O Kohn, 63), O Hodge, C Morgan (R Martin-Redman, 56), J Brownrigg, J El Abd (capt).

Referee: S Lander (Cheshire).

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