Wasps shore defences as Kingsholm launch raid

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The Independent Online

Those gentle Cotswold folk who offer friendly advice to opposition players from the depths of the Kingsholm Shed - "Oi wouldn't touch that ball if Oi were thee, son," is a phrase heard many a time and oft among that uniquely sympathetic band of followers - would travel epic distances to see Gloucester beat Wasps in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. In fact, some are prepared to travel as far as High Wycombe, not once but thrice. Greater love hath no supporter.

Wasps were no more generous than they had to be in sending tickets down the M4 to the West Country, so the Gloucester hordes made it their business to trek up to the Causeway Stadium and purchase them at source. "To their horror, they found that they had to buy a ticket for the Wasps-Rotherham Premiership match as well," said Nigel Melville, the former Wasps coach and now Gloucester's director of rugby. "So they did. And having bought them, they used them. I'm told there were plenty of Gloucester accents in the crowd when Wasps played that game against Rotherham last month."

There will be plenty more tomorrow afternoon when one of the more belligerent rivalries in the domestic game takes on a new and thrilling dimension. Since the Heineken Cup was launched in 1995, there have been only three all-English matches: two quarter-finals and one semi, which Gloucester lost 19-15 to Leicester in 2001. The air of anticipation surrounding this fixture reflects its rarity, as well as the extreme physicality promised by two clubs who took leave of each other's Christmas card list many moons ago.

"I would like to think the stick we get from Gloucester is the result of the respect in which they hold us," said Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, this week. This thought of his is probably justified, although no Gloucester man worth his salt would ever admit it. While the Londoners regularly beat the West Countrymen at Kingsholm, Gloucester have not managed a win at Wasps in the professional era. Whisper it quietly, but the Cherry and Whites think Dallaglio and his boys are bloody good.

"They operate a very particular defensive system and we're all aware of the damage that system can cause," said Melville. "As long as they stay onside, we can handle it. But if they're allowed to get offside..." Gloucester are not alone in wondering whether Wasps are entirely legal when it comes to the tackling chores, and are hoping and praying that tomorrow's referee has his wits about him.

That referee will be Joel Jutge, a Frenchman who is not exactly renowned for noticing things. Ask Munster, whose best chance of beating Leicester in the final two years ago disappeared when Jutge failed to spot Neil Back's infamous piece of ball-pilfering gamesmanship at an attacking scrum in front of the Midlanders' posts in the dying minutes. Quite why the tournament organisers should have nominated a French official for this quintessentially English rumble is a mystery yet to be unravelled.

Tomorrow's winner will face either Munster in Dublin, or Stade Français in Paris. Most of the smart money is backing the first of those possibilities, not least because the Irishmen have yet to lose a Heineken Cup tie at Thomond Park, their spiritual home. But the visitors are in must-win mood: "It's all or nothing; if we match Munster physically, we have a chance of coming away from Ireland with a result for the first time," said Pieter de Villiers, Stade's wonderful tight-head prop. One way or another, it should be some weekend.

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