The old hands of Leinster were given a hard time by a youthful Gloucester in a pulsating Heineken Cup match yesterday evening. Experience won the day, but the Irishmen were pushed close at times by Gloucester's exciting, adventurous backs.
These two sides had never met in this competition, chiefly because Gloucester had qualified for the tournament on only four previous occasions. The fast and furious start suggested they were prepared to make up for lost opportunities.
This was Leinster's 68th match in the Heineken Cup, 40 more than their opponents. Their Ireland lock, Malcolm O'Kelly, was celebrating his 50th appearance and his team made good use of their collective experience inside two minutes when their fly-half, Felipe Contepomi, found Gordon D'Arcy with a long miss-pass. The Ireland centre produced a dazzling burst of acceleration to scorch around Jack Adams and race over for the first try. Contepomi converted.
The lead was short-lived. First Gloucester's fly-half, Ryan Lamb, kicked a 42-metre penalty, and then the Cherry and Whites conjured up a great move. Their No 8, James Forrester, fed Peter Richards from the base of a scrum. Lamb received the ball and returned it to Richards, who had looped around. A perfectly timed pass to Mark Foster presented the wing with time and space for a fine try. Lamb's conversion nosed Gloucester further ahead.
The West Country side's backs caused numerous nervy moments for the home defence and plenty of excitement for their supporters. But a fine break by the Leinster full-back Girvan Dempsey culminated in a delicate chip by Contepomi which rebounded off Anthony Allen's arm and dropped over the line. The grateful Leinster fly-half dropped on to the ball, and then converted his own try.
Leinster began to squeeze errors out of their opponents, who were punished for offside twice and for not releasing, Contepomi landing the resultant penalties. As for the pre-match perception that Gloucester's pack would outmuscle Leinster's, it was patently not the case. The Irish eight played like nine and it was all the visitors could do to contain them.
Gloucester did manage to find their way back upfield and they were unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty when a driving maul was pulled down, but they still found a way through. Unfortunately Lamb's miss-pass to Iain Balshaw was dropped. D'Arcy pounced on the ball, left Gloucester floundering and found the wing Denis Hickie, who swerved inside, outside and inside before bursting up the middle. He was pulled up short, but the flanker Stephen Keogh touched down. Contepomi kicked another conversion.
Gloucester gritted their teeth and started over, Adams scooping up an ankle-high pass one-handed and beating three men to the line. Lamb converted.
The fireworks of the first half were dampened by driving rain after the interval, although Lamb landed a second penalty to drag Gloucester closer. Leinster then lost O'Kelly to the sin bin for a line-out infringement, but the 14-men managed a fourth try to guarantee a bonus point when Shane Horgan shrugged off despairing defenders to lunge over. Contepomi maintained his immaculate kicking record.
As the match drew to a climax, there was unexpected drama when the referee, Christophe Berdos, had to be replaced by his fellow Frenchman Eric Gauzins after sustaining a cut above his left eye following an accidental clash of heads with Leinster's replacement flanker, Owen Finnegan.
Leinster: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, D Hickie; F Contepomi, C Willis (A Dunne, 80); R McCormack, B Blaney (C Vermaas, 74), W Green (R Corrigan, 70-74), T Hogan (A Byrnes, 74), M O'Kelly, S Keogh (O Finnegan, 75), J Heaslip, K Gleeson.
Gloucester: I Balshaw; M Foster (L Mercier, 57), J Adams, A Allen, J Bailey; R Lamb, P Richards (R Lawson, 53); C Califano (N Wood, 61), M Davies (O Azam, 70), C Nieto, M Bortolami (capt), A Eustace, P Buxton, J Forrester, A Hazell (J Boer, 42).
Referee: C Berdos (France).