LONDON IRISH 22 GLOUCESTER RUGBY 29
IF BRIAN Smith really is trapped in a time loop, let it continue twice over.
Lamenting his side’s turnaround defeat, the London Irish boss reckons his men are stuck in Groundhog Day.
Smith cut a passable Phil Connors in the aftermath of this pivotal European Challenge Cup clash, impersonating Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman from the 1990s Hollywood comedy.
The Australian coach could hardly believe a second home defeat to Gloucester in the space of three months and a second loss to the Kingsholm men where his side had racked up three tries, only to concede the final advantage.
Should he wake up in Punxsutawney to the strains of I Got You Babe, the former England attack coach would not be hugely surprised.
Gloucester will quite happily have him stay in that quaint Pennsylvania borough, especially if it brings two more victories over the Exiles in the next four weeks.
Smith could hardly watch through his fingers as his embattled side surrendered their 22-9 lead.
Gloucester, meanwhile, revelled in turning a malaise-filled first 50 minutes on its head, racking up 20 unanswered points in the final 25 minutes to take control of Amlin Challenge Cup pool one.
Win the return fixture at Kingsholm on Saturday and Gloucester can prepare for a European quarter final.
The two sides will then face each other in Gloucester in the Premiership on January 5, and judging by the start of this three-match cycle, Irish could be sick of the sight of Nigel Davies and Co by then.
The Cherry and Whites do not mind this decent dose of déjà vu one bit, however, especially after the ignominy of last term’s final day, when Irish humiliated the rudderless Kingsholm men in Reading.
How Davies has transformed that brittle, confidence-shattered rabble.
Whatever hole Gloucester find themselves in these days, they are fully equipped to climb out.
Perhaps this was the deepest chasm of all to date.
Insipid and lacking intensity, the Cherry and Whites were fortunate to hit half-time just 10-6 behind.
Sailosi Tagicakibau ghosted through Gloucester’s ragged line with a devastating, drifting break, to register the game’s first try after just three minutes.
Freddie Burns landed two penalties to Ian Humphreys’ one, to bring about that half-time scoreline.
But the tale of the half was told in opportunities spurned – by the hosts.
Ofisa Treviranus succeeded only in finding the Madejski Stadium turf when he should have hit Tagicakibau with a try-scoring pass.
Compounding the hosts’ consternation, fly-half Humphreys tapped a penalty five metres from the Gloucester line, trying to catch the Cherry and Whites unawares.
The Kingsholm men bundled him into touch, ball, scoring chance and all.
Such profligacy kept Gloucester in the hunt, though at the other end they failed to capitalise on two fine 22 set-piece platforms with cheap errors.
Rugby director Davies challenged his Gloucester players to expand their attacking game, admitting there would be teething problems.
The glitches duly made mischief, but still his men rallied.
Burns landed a penalty to open the second half and cut the deficit to one point.
But then Irish blasted two tries in three minutes to stun the Cherry and Whites.
Prop Halani Aulika brushed off Matt Cox all too easily, and drove home after a well-drilled maul.
Then fleet-footed wing Anthony Watson latched on to Burns’ blocked grubber, and raced 60 metres to the whitewash and a try that had Irish dreaming of a scoring bonus point.
Just when Gloucester looked set to fold, though, the Cherry and Whites puffed out chests and started attacking from deep – and wide out too.
Replacements Ben Morgan, Rob Cook and Mike Tindall all had big parts to play in the mother of all comebacks, and so too playmaker Burns.
Filling in at inside centre with Billy Twelvetrees rested, Burns had performed admirably in his first-ever midfield outing.
But as soon as he reverted to outside half he was able to cut loose, and set the likes of Morgan and Tindall marauding through the 13 channel.
Former Irish prop Dan Murphy capped a set of tight driving phases with a neat try after a strong lineout maul.
And then Burns launched himself across the line after patient Gloucester phase play deep in the Irish 22.
It was a stealthy break from replacement scrum-half Dave Lewis that set Gloucester en route to that second score, but the calmness with which the Cherry and Whites played the phases was equally creditable.
Burns knocked over two more penalties, to extend the lead to seven points.
Heading into the final play though, Irish went hunting a last-ditch draw.
Four minutes came and went with the hosts mixing between battering the Gloucester 22, and flitting around the edges of it.
Watson thought he had a final chance to strike for the whitewash – but a forward pass ended Gloucester’s nail-gnawing.
Another fine example of Davies’ positive influence on now-resolute Gloucester.
If and when the Cherry and Whites combine all their game’s plus points, this could be some team.
In the meantime rival coaches like Smith can try as they like to break the repeat cycle – and Gloucester will just revel in it.
LONDON IRISH: @T Homer, T Ojo, J Joseph, S Tagicakibau, A Watson, I Humphreys (S Geraghty, 71), D Allinson (J Moates, 64), M Lahiff (J Yanyanutawa, 56), D Paice (S Lawson, 56), H Aulika (L Halavatu, 56), B Evans, M Garvey (K Low, 62), D Danaher (capt) (K Low, blood 19-25), J Gibson, O Treviranus (C Hala’ufia, 52). Unused: G Armitage.
REFEREE: @D Phillips (IRE).