Harlequins 21 Gloucester 31: Azam exposes flaws in Quins' survival plans

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The Independent Online

The talk of the Gloucester town may be of the young thrusters in the back line and the thrilling rugby they promise, but it would not be Gloucester rugby if there was not also a substantial amount of work done by the old cauliflower-eared brigade up front.

So with the scores level at 16-16 with 25 minutes remaining Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, sent on the even heavier brigade, that bulldozer of a hooker, Olivier Azam, and the young tight-head prop Jack Forster. Their impact was dramatic. The Harlequins forwards were already having the life throttled from them, a process that started straight after the interval, but Azam and Forster added impetus.

This is a major problem for Quins, as their front five is just not big enough to withstand a sustained onslaught, and when Azam was offered a channel on the left flank he galloped gleefully down it for a score in the 62nd minute. Six minutes later James Forrester picked up from the base of a scrum, discovered he was unopposed and cantered round for another try.

These moments, added to Willie Walker's consistent kicking, won the game and yet Quins still should feel somewhat aggrieved. They had a chance to secure a crucial home win, announce the arrival of Andrew Mehrtens and ease their fans' concerns about returning to National Division One, but after going into the break 16-6 up courtesy of a Steve So'oialo break that was completed by Ceri Jones, they collapsed.

The greatest worry is that a lot of it happened around Mehrtens. Under pressure in the 42nd minute, he fired a pass inside without looking and Andy Hazell, Gloucester's industrious flanker, collected it and sprinted for the line, only to be caught with a yard to go. In the 48th minute, the former All Black missed a simple tackle on Peter Richards. Despite Richards shrugging off Gavin Duffy as well, the error belonged to Mehrtens. Until he puts his shoulder down and stops opposing runners, he is going to be targeted.

Gloucester's first half was appalling, Richards getting little help from his pack, but in the second half they returned to basics, attacked through the forwards and dominated territory. It was not always pretty but it was a lot better than the fumbles and knock-ons of the first half.

Gloucester have something solid to work on. Quins do not, and this winter could prove a long and dispiriting journey back from whence they came - despite their director of rugby, Dean Richards, professing his confidence after the match. The Stoop's new stands may have solid foundations but the team certainly does not.

Harlequins : T Williams; S Keogh, H Luscombe, S Abbott, D Strettle (G Duffy, 29); A Mehrtens, S So'oialo (D Care, 63); C Jones, A Hayter (J Richards, 8), R Nebbett (M Ross, 69), N Spanghero, S Miall, A Vos (G Hala'Ufia, 63), N Easter, P Volley (capt).

Gloucester: O Morgan; M Foster, R Keil, A Allen, J Bailey; W Walker, P Richards (R Lawson, 70); N Wood, M Davies (O Azam, 57), C Califano (J Forster, 58), M Bortolami (capt), A Brown (W James, 66), P Buxton (L Narraway, 60), J Forrester, A Hazell.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).