Life used to be so simple at Gloucester: you trained twice a week, you smacked a few heads on a Saturday afternoon, you enjoyed a quiet beer (followed by a dozen noisy ones) after the game and you pushed off home, usually via the local curry house. Then came professionalism, Tom Walkinshaw, Philippe Saint-Andre and a tantalising taste of success. Nowadays, Kingsholm is a maze of contradiction, a labyrinth of confusion. In rugby's Theatre of the Absurd, Castle Grim tops the bill.
Gloucester boast a dozen full caps from almost as many different nations, yet their highest-paid player – by a distance – is still learning the union game and has a good deal of studying ahead of him. (Step forward, Henry Paul). They are enjoying their most productive run since pay-for-play was sanctioned seven years ago, yet Walkinshaw, the resident moneybags, cannot quite decide whether to stick with the off-the-wall but undeniably successful Saint-Andre, or throw his wallet at some other coach. They are odds-on favourites to secure a place in next season's Heineken Cup, but have so many players in contractual negotiations that they cannot guarantee fielding a team worthy of the tournament.
For all his strange Gallic foibles, Saint-Andre has produced a winning side who are terribly difficult to beat on their own mudheap, as Brendan Venter's excellent London Irish team discovered at the weekend. The Irish played with great efficiency and no little elan – given the conditions, some of their ball-playing out of contact verged on the sensational – and the 17-point deficit they faced going into the last five minutes was an injustice worthy of a public inquiry. But 17 points adrift they were. Ludovic Mercier, the deadliest marksman in the Premiership, had accumulated 19 points from the depths of the Kingsholm swamp, and the Gloucester back row of Jake Boer, Junior Paramore and the loose-limbed young breakaway James Forrester had shaded the contest for the loose ball. Job done.
What worries the cherry-clad hordes who congregate in the Kingsholm Shed are the jobs that have yet to be completed. Saint-Andre, out of contract at the end of the season, wants to stay at Gloucester, but only on the right financial terms and only if he is given the opportunity to compete with those great powerhouses of the European game, Leicester and Toulouse.
"They are the best sides in the northern hemisphere, and they are strong because they are always 18 months ahead in their planning," the Frenchman said on Saturday. "If I am going to take Gloucester into the Heineken Cup, I want to be able to challenge. And to challenge, I need to know within a couple of weeks whether I am wanted here. If there is no decision, I will make it myself. There will be no point in staying."
At this moment, Gloucester are second in the Premiership, in the last four of the Parker Pen Shield and... a 24-carat shambles. Phil Vickery, their Lions tight-head prop, is being courted by Leicester, who have money to burn; Paul is about to be disciplined for firing both barrels at the coaching regime; the French contingent – Mercier, Olivier Azam, Patrice Collazo, Dimitri Yachvili, Pierre Caillet – are waiting to see what happens to Saint-Andre before committing themselves to a further tour of West Country duty.
"I want to stay in England, and at Gloucester if possible," said Azam, who had just played his first game since the Christmas conflagration with Newcastle and had completed a typically energetic and aggressive contribution by claiming the second of his side's tries. "But of course I must wait. Philippe brought me here, and has helped me become an international hooker. This is in Tom Walkinshaw's hands, I think. If Philippe stays, I am sure the French players will stay too."
If Azam felt inhibited by the continuing investigation into allegations that he racially abused the Newcastle flanker Epi Taione – allegations he categorically denies – he did not let on to any of the 11,000 spectators wedged into Kingsholm. His line-out throwing was accurate, his mauling dynamic, his work-rate stratospheric. "I am fitter now," he said. "When you are banned for five weeks, there is nothing to do but train. It has not been pleasant, being beasted by the coaches, but I can last a whole game now. I am happy to be back."
A whole lot happier than Paul, it seems. The rugby league international from New Zealand was given the nod at outside centre ahead of the eternally unfortunate Joe Ewens, and while he did nothing wrong, his body language was about as uplifting as a late Thomas Hardy novel. "Maybe my management style is different to the style Henry knew in league," said Saint-Andre, unapologetically. "For me, the star must be the team. If the best solution is to rest a player, or leave him on the bench, I will do this. My job is to think about strategy, not teach one guy how to play union."
There were enough people who knew how to play on Saturday to provide a resounding justification of Premiership rugby. Forrester, fleet of foot and awash with youthful enthusiasm, struck some telling blows against the man who promises to be a long-term rival for Test honours, Declan Danaher, while two of the visitors' South African contingent, Venter and Ryan Strudwick, were full of craft and know-how. Much of the entertainment was wonderfully rich.
While the tries were wet-weatherish in nature – Terry Fanolua's opener came from a kick ahead by Forrester, Azam was driven over by his pack, Chris Sheasby supported Strudwick's break to score from close range and Mike Worsley earned the Exiles a bonus point by sliding in at the left corner from a line-out – Mercier could not have kicked more beautifully had the game been played on a snooker table. The man from Aurillac may well hoof Gloucester all the way to a high seeding in next season's Heineken. Whether or not he hoofs it out of Kingsholm before the tournament begins is down to Mr Walkinshaw.
Gloucester: Tries Fanolua, Azam; Conversions Mercier 2; Penalties Mercier 5. London Irish: Tries Sheasby, Worsley; Penalties Everitt 2; Drop goals Everitt 2.
Gloucester: D O'Leary; D Albanese, H Paul, R Todd, T Fanolua; L Mercier, A Gomarsall (D Yachvili, 67); P Collazo, O Azam (C Fortey, 81), F Pucciarello (A Deacon, 65), R Fidler, M Cornwell (E Pearce, 71), J Boer (capt), J Forrester, J Paramore.
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, R Hoadley, B Venter, J Bishop; B Everitt, H Martens; M Worsley, R Kirke, R Hardwick (S Halford, 46), R Strudwick (capt), S Williams, P Gustard (E Halvey, 70), D Danaher, C Sheasby.
Referee: S Leyshon (Bristol).