Stimpson falls at the winning post

Rugby Union: Gloucester 17 West Hartlepool 16
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KNOWING that you might face execution in four months time concentrates the mind powerfully. As a result the two clubs who are still the likeliest candidates for the drop from the First Division at the end of the season, produced a match of razor-edge thrills and totally contrasting styles to keep Kingsholm on the edge of its seat into injury time. Even then it needed a missed conversion in front of the posts - and by the game's most dominant figure - to rob West Hartlepool of a victory that they throughly deserved.

Whether it would have been much use to them after a string of 10 defeats is a purely academic matter. At least the two league points that now make their total four will, if nothing more, prolong Gloucester's agony, perhaps until their final match against Saracens at the end of April.

To avoid relegation, they will have to improve their all-round game vastly. They were outrun and out-manoeuvred by West, whose one problem would have been solved if they had had a pack to match the strength of Gloucester's.

Remembering that when they lost to Gloucester last September, West still managed to run up 19 points, the brisk optimism of their opening gambit should not have been any great surprise. They sent long passes from half- back to centre to wing - anything, it seemed, to get away from the Gloucester pack - and though the home defence held, the minuscule gain of ground was put to good use. From only four yards inside the Gloucester half, and well to the right, Tim Stimpson, the West captain, kicked a penalty to put them into the lead after only two minutes.

There was something engagingly naive about West's play, as though this was a game beteen the Boys and the Masters, and Gloucester seemed to have restored their authority when Tim Smith thumped two solid penalties in reply to seize back the lead. But West continued to run at Gloucester and throw the ball around with apparently no concern for the risks. And although a 40-metre break through the centre by the West flanker, Alan Brown, was almost too good to be true as the Gloucester tacklers turned to stone, Stimpson then kicked a second penalty to put the scores level.

Still West attacked freely, forcing a penalty decision out of the referee when Gloucester went offside at a momentary ruck as they defended their line. West typically decided to run the ball, and one pass took them over in the corner for a try which put them into an 11-6 lead at half-time.

Smith added his third penalty in the opening minutes of the second half, but that was his last contribution. He went off on a stretcher shortly afterwards, and since he had scored all Gloucester's points so far, his departure put the side under even more pressure. Fortunately Smith's replacement, Lee Osborne, lifted their confidence by succeeding with the next penalty, which put Gloucester one point in the lead once more. And midway through the half Tom Beim crossed for a try on the right after a flurry of short passing. West tried heroically to raise their pace once more. Paul Hodder almost managed to squeeze inside the corner flag, and then in the first minute of added time, Stimpson, who had played inspirationally throughout the game, crossed the Gloucester line wide out, ran round to the posts to make his own conversion a match-winning formality - and then inexplicably sent the ball sailing wide.

Gloucester: T Smith (L Osborne, 50); P Holford, M Roberts, D Caskie, T Beim; M Kimber, B Fenley; A Powles, P Greening, W Bullock, D Sims (capt), R West, I Smith, P Glanville, P Miles.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson (capt); O Evans, P Hodder, C Lee, A Blyth; A Parker, S Cook; P Beal, T Herbert, M Shelley, P Evans, K Westgarth, R Leach, A Brown, D Mitchell.

Referee: R C Rees (London)