There was precisely one second left on the clock when an 18st England age-group lock by the name of Elliott Stooke had the ball smashed from his grasp in the act of scoring by the equally youthful but significantly less substantial Henry Slade, a mere stripling of an outside-half who would barely threaten the 13st mark if he stood on the scales dripping wet.
This pretty much summed up the previous 79 minutes plus. Gloucester are so weak up front these days, they struggle to knock the skin off a rice pudding even when the other lot are already celebrating.
Mike Rafter, a ferociously competitive England flanker back in the day, could scarcely believe his eyes. During a long and bruising stint in the Bristol pack, the man known as “the grafter” made many a trip to Kingsholm and was invariably reduced to his component parts. Back in front of the Shed yesterday in his official capacity as citing officer, he must have left the stadium thinking: “Just my luck. I got to play against Blakeway, Fidler and Teague; today’s generation get to play the Beverley Sisters.”
No one expects any citing activity after this, unless Rafter charges the Gloucester pack with horizontal pacifism in the first degree. Exeter’s record victory on this particular rectangle of rugby terrain – once a fortress, now a Wendy house – might easily have been more comprehensive still, such was the dominance of their tight five in all aspects of the close-quarter contest: scrum, maul, ruck, the whole caboodle.
The consequences could be severe, not just for Gloucester’s lightweights in the front and second rows, but for back-rowers and midfielders with immediate England ambitions, like Matt Kvesic, Ben Morgan, Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees. The open-side flanker Kvesic cannot hope to make up the necessary ground on the national captain Chris Robshaw if he spends his weekends on the back foot, and the same goes for Morgan, who is not only slipping behind Billy Vunipola of Saracens in the race to bag the No 8 spot against the Wallabies in a little under four weeks’ time, but can feel the heat being applied by a couple of extremely useful Premiership newcomers.
One of them is Sam Dickinson of Northampton, whose eye-catching performances during the opening tranche of league matches cannot be explained simply by the fact that he is as bald as a coot. Another is Dave Ewers, who caused Gloucester no end of grief in this game. Ewers is a Zimbabwean – his extended family were among the victims of Robert Mugabe’s unusually aggressive approach to land reform – but he has not committed himself to any country in particular and is, as things stand, eligible for England.
Asked about Ewers’ representative situation, the Exeter rugby director, Rob Baxter’s first reply was a long “Ssshhh…” – the time-honoured response of a coach who would like to keep his secret weapon secret for just a little longer. He then came up with a variation on the old: “What does an elephant eat? Whatever it wants” joke. “Dave could play for Zimbabwe, for South Africa, for England – basically, he could play for whoever he likes,” Baxter said.
Ewers was outstanding, as was the Wallaby lock and new Exeter captain Dean Mumm. Between them, they packed too much of a punch – physically, dynamically, every which way – for the over-matched Gloucester pack. But as both Baxter and his ashen-faced opposite number Nigel Davies readily acknowledged, front-foot rugby is immeasurably easier than the other kind.
“We have to man up,” Davies conceded. “Exeter put us under huge pressure and we didn’t deal with it. We were out-muscled in most departments and the pack will be disappointed, so now is the time for them to find some unity and bring it to the fore. We knew what to expect from Exeter, but we didn’t plan for what happened out there. The forwards will admit it wasn’t good enough. Me? Let’s say I don’t expect it to continue.”
There was a moment during the first half, in which the Devonians scored a close-range try through the flanker Ben White and would have been out of sight had Hoani Tui been awarded a similar score by the television match official and Gareth Steenson’s goal-kicking radar been working a little more reliably, when Davies could be seen kicking the advertising boards in frustration. He was also spotted punching the self-same hoarding and it would have been no great surprise had he dropped to his knees and given the offending sign a Millwall kiss.
You could see his point, for at this stage Gloucester were wasting what little possession they had, either by chucking it on the floor or throwing wide passes straight into Row Z. Burns and Twelvetrees, two creative spirits who, all things being equal, will surely pair up for England at some point this season, were both culpable. There again, they were betrayed by the men in front of them. They tried everything they knew to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it would have been a pig of a task for Daniel Carter and Conrad Smith, let alone them.
There was just one flash of midfield mastery and it came early, towards the end of the first quarter. Tom Savage, the Gloucester captain, did well from the restart following Steenson’s opening penalty and after his fellow lock James Hudson had provided some unexpected linkage, Twelvetrees sent Martyn Thomas haring over the Exeter line with an exquisite inside pass. Sadly for the big Kingsholm crowd, the home side would not trouble the scorers again until the last quarter of an hour, by which time the argument had been decisively lost.
By way of adding insult to injury, the man asked to do the on-field interview duties during half-time was the suspended Nick Wood, by some distance Gloucester’s most accomplished front-rower. “There are a couple of set-piece issues that need addressing,” Wood said quietly, perhaps hoping that no one would hear. As that much was blindingly obvious to everyone in the ground, he could have stayed mute.
Gloucester: Tries M Thomas, May; Conversion Burns. Exeter: Tries White, Mumm; Conversions Steenson 2; Penalties Steenson 5.
Gloucester M Thomas (J May 63); C Sharples, M Tindall, W Twelvetrees, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, T Knoyle (D Robson 53); Y Thomas (D Murphy 49), D Dawidiuk (H Edmonds 63), R Harden (S Knight 36), T Savage (capt, E Stooke 56), J Hudson, S Kalamafoni, M Kvesic (A Qera 56), B Morgan (G Evans 56).
Exeter P Dollman; M Jess, I Whitten, S Hill (H Slade 67), T James (F Vainikolo 49-53 and 78); G Steenson, D Lewis (H Thomas 52); B Sturgess (B Moon 63), C Whitehead (J Yeandle 53), H Tui (C Rimmer 63), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (D Armand 49-52 and 78), T Johnson, B White (K Horstmann 60), D Ewers.
Referee M Carley (Kent).