BILLY Twelvetrees booted 14 points as Gloucester survived a second-half fightback at the Madejski Stadium. The Cherry and Whites were outscored three tries to one by London Irish but hung on to finish 2013 on a high with a crucial victory.
Twelvetrees was once again utilised at fly-half, with Freddie Burns who is on the verge of a three-year switch to Leicester Tigers, left on the bench.
And he orchestrated efficiently as Gloucester led by 12 points shortly after the break thanks to the centre-cum-fly-half’s haul and a Jonny May try.
The Exiles roared back with an Eamonn Sheridan double, either side of a Burns penalty, to add to Fergus Mulchrone’s earlier effort.
But Gloucester escaped with four points and completed a festive double after Shane Geraghty missed a late penalty to snatch a draw.
Nigel Davies named an unchanged team to the one that squeezed past Worcester Warriors but was forced into a late reshuffle after Darren Dawidiuk withdrew.
The hooker, who was named man-of-the-match against Worcester, suffered a knee strain in Saturday’s team run and was replaced by Huia Edmonds with Koree Britton stepping up to the bench.
South African prop CJ van der Linde was also set to make his debut for London Irish after signing for the Exiles earlier this month but he aggravated a his calf during the warm-up.
The Cherry and Whites made a nightmare start with Edmonds knocking on from the kick-off. That gave the Exiles the platform to attack and after earning a free-kick from the ensuing scrum they went on the attack.
Tomás O’Leary released Topsy Ojo, who hit the line at pace before firing a flat pass to Humphreys, who straightened the line to send Mulchrone clear after just 63 seconds.
The Irish fly-half added the extras but Twelvetrees responded on seven minutes as Gloucester fought back.
Humphreys had the opportunity to restore the hosts’ seven-point advantage after Gloucester went off their feet at the breakdown but he pushed his penalty effort across the face of goal.
With the set-piece under pressure, Gloucester were taking the ball standing still and looked to the corners.
A superb raking kick from Rob Cooke pinned Irish on their own five-metre line and James Hudson rose above Ian Gough to steal possession.
Matt Kvesic took the ball into contact with venom and earned a penalty which Twelvetrees duly slotted after Kieran Low competed while off his feet.
Moments later the Cherry and Whites set Irish alarm bells ringing after Edmonds burst clear from inside his own 22 following an inside pass from Jimmy Cowan.
The Australian showed a remarkable turn of pace for a hooker and chipped over fellow countryman James O’Conner.
He won the race to the ball but was swiftly stripped of possession by the recovering full-back.
Gloucester continued to grow with the Exiles’ poor kicking from hand giving Davies’ men ample opportunity to counter-attack with May, Cook and Charlie Sharples all prominent.
But it was a text-book jackal from Mike Tindall that created the opening for Gloucester’s try.
The former England centre pounced to strip Ofisa Treviranus of possession and Twelvetrees caught Irish napping with a lightening quick-tap. He then flicked the ball to May, who blazed over to stretch his strike rate to 11 tries in his last 15 Premiership matches.
The stand-in fly-half made no mistake with the conversion to boot his side into a 13-7 lead.
Gloucester continued to put themselves under pressure by taking the ball standing still but caused Irish real problems when they got over the gain-line.
They had plenty of opportunities in the closing stages of the half with Matt Cox dropping possession from a promising breakout.
But after Cook once again pinned Irish back on the counter, Twelvetrees added a fourth penalty to make it 16-7 at the interval.
Humphreys had the opportunity to hit back within six minutes of the restart, after Gloucester were penalised at the breakdown, but fluffed his lines.
Treviranus came agonisingly close to crossing the whitewash but was held short and May broke out to alleviate the pressure and launch a frantic attack.
Sharples collected a clearance and Twelvetrees found Elliot Stooke with a perfectly weighted cross-kick but the second-row could not power over.
However, the Gloucester pack flexed their collective muscle to earn three points courtesy of Twelvetrees’ boot.
But that hard work was undone as Irish launched a sustained period of pressure and clawed their way back into the encounter as Sheridan evaded the tackle of Tindall to squeeze into the corner.
Geraghty failed to convert but the try prompted Davies to ring the changes with Freddie Burns among the three-man cavalry and it took the fly-half just three minutes to stamp his mark on the game with a penalty as Twelvetrees received treatment.
But Irish continued to battle and they set up a tense finale with their third try with less than 10 minutes left.
Nic Rouse sold a sublime dummy to break clear and he fed Alex Lewington on the outside.
Dan Robson recovered to make a fine try-saving tackle but the hosts retained possession and following a sustained period of pressure Sheridan powered through the scrum-half and May to score.
Geraghty displayed nerves of steel to add the conversion and cut Gloucester’s slender lead to three but he was off target after the Cherry and White pack conceded at the death.
London Irish: J O'Connor; T Ojo, F Mulchrone, E Sheridan, A Lewington (A Fenby 76); I Humphreys (S Geraghty 48), T O'Leary; M Parr (J Yapp 48), J Stevens (M Mayhew 48), L Halavatau (J Hagan 40), G Skivington, I Gough (J Sinclair 40), K Low, O Treviranus, B Cowan (N Rouse 48).
Unused Replacements: E Hoadley
Tries – F Mulchrone, E Sheridan (2); Cons – I Humphreys, S Geraghty
Gloucester: R Cook (M Thomas 74); C Sharples, H Trinder, M Tindall (F Burns 57), J May; B Twelvetrees (capt), J Cowan (D Robson 67); N Wood (Y Thomas ), H Edmonds, S Puafisi (S Knight 67); E Stooke, J Hudson (W James 71); M Cox, M Kvesic, B Morgan
Unused Replacements: K Britton, G Evans,
Try – J May; Con – B Twlevetrees; Pens – B Twelvetrees (4), F Burns
Referee: A Small