Ryan faces uphill battle to wrest cup from Welsh

Chris Hewett
Monday 24 March 2014 04:05

There is something distinctly odd about one English club's desperation to win an Anglo-Welsh tournament that English clubs in general would rather did not exist, but when it comes to Gloucester nothing is entirely straightforward. Despite their Powergen Cup title in 2003, their European Challenge Cup victory in 2006 and three table-topping finishes in the Guinness Premiership in the space of half a dozen seasons, the West Countrymen still find themselves routinely dismissed as serial underachievers.

As a result, they go into this afternoon's EDF Energy Cup final with Cardiff Blues under a whole heap of pressure. Their first objective – qualification for next season's Heineken Cup – is sorted: even if they lose today and fail to pick up another league point, they will be one of the chosen 24 in the elite competition. But Dean Ryan, their director of rugby, is expected to win things, not merely participate. Should Gloucester come up short against the form side in Wales and then miss out on a Premiership play-off place, the natives will grow very restless indeed.

Is this fair? Not really. Gloucester may have access to more international players than any of their rivals, not to mention the many bright young things emerging from an increasingly impressive academy, and there is little doubt that they have enviable amounts of cash to splash. Not everyone can sign a player as good as Olly Barkley one summer and happily see him push off again the following spring. But their many critics are surely wrong to condemn them as failures. If success means being in the mix when the medals are up for grabs, Gloucester have found themselves at the business end of one competition or another in each of the last four campaigns.

This afternoon's contest at Twickenham will be played against a backdrop of political strain between the Rugby Football Union and its troublesome top-flight teams. The governing body is committed to continuing the Anglo-Welsh project, not least because it has already flogged the television rights to Mr Murdoch, while the clubs are keen to abandon it in favour of a hare-brained, laughably lopsided expansion of the Premiership. It may be that the union will eventually buy them off with a payout from an extra England international this autumn – the Wallabies are said to be the most likely opponents – but as things stand, there is no sign of a rapprochement.

All Ryan can do is get on with the day job. He has lost two of his prime backs, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw, to injury, and cannot bring himself to offer the departing Barkley anything better than the bench. With the All Black outside-half Carlos Spencer cup-tied, it has been an unusually challenging week on the selection front. What is more, he does not have the foggiest idea how the Blues will react to the stresses and strains of their Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Toulouse seven days ago. "We had last week off, which was crucial, given our injuries," Ryan said. "But I'm not sure that gives us an edge over Cardiff, who must be feeling good about themselves. Sometimes, a team can experience a drop-off after putting in the effort they did to beat a side like Toulouse. Equally, there are times a game like that gives people a lift."

The Blues will be unchanged, which must be unnerving from Gloucester's perspective. After Ospreys' victory last season, the smart money must be on the trophy staying in Wales.

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