LONDON IRISH 22 GLOUCESTER 29
COMEBACK kings Gloucester are now in control of Amlin Challenge Cup pool one, admits Nigel Davies.
The Cherry and Whites blasted 20 unanswered points in 25 second-half minutes to claim dramatic victory at the Madejski Stadium, and steal the advantage in their European group.
Gloucester host the Exiles at Kingsholm a week today(kick-off 3pm), in the return fixture – and rugby director Davies concedes that his men are now in prime position to progress to the competition’s quarter-finals.
Insipid in the first-half, Gloucester wiped collective brows as Irish bungled three gilt-edged scoring chances.
The hosts powered in two quick tries after the turnaround to wrestle the advantage.
But then the Cherry and Whites sprang to life, substitutes Ben Morgan and Mike Tindall particularly prevalent.
Playmaker Freddie Burns made his first outing at centre, but reverted to fly-half for the last half-hour – and he ended the tie with 24 points – a try, two conversions and five penalties.
Former Irish prop Dan Murphy claimed Gloucester’s other score, as the Cherry and Whites turned a 22-9 deficit on its head in the final stages of an open and engaging contest.
This clash wound up mightily similar to Gloucester’s 40-31 Premiership victory over Irish in Reading on September 9.
Both sides ended up with three tries apiece that day – but a 25-point haul from Burns sealed the Gloucester deal.
London Irish might have been left to lament chances lost, but for the visitors it was another victory owing everything to resilience and the calmness that cool-headed boss Davies has breathed through his resurgent squad.
Gearing up for the return leg next weekend, former Wales centre Davies said Gloucester are now in command of their group – but must target three wins from their three remaining games to secure progress to the next stage of the competition.
Davies explained: “This game in terms of Europe gives us control of the pool I suppose.
“I still believe we’ve got to go and win all our remaining games.
“But there’s two home games and one away game, so hopefully we should be fairly confident of progressing now.
“But I’m sure Irish will come hard at us next weekend and they can still get back into the pool as well.
“So the game at Kingsholm is equally important as well.”
Sailosi Tagicakibau opened the try-scoring after three minutes, drifting delightfully through the 13 channel and scything back to dot down, albeit under brittle Gloucester resistance.
Irish botched a near-certain try when Ofisa Treviranus fumbled a pass to Tagicakibau that would have set the hard-running centre home as the half progressed.
And when fly-half Ian Humphreys tapped a penalty in the Gloucester 22, and was forced into touch as opposed to driving over the line, Irish boss Brian Smith would have been squirming with frustration.
Gloucester rode out those dicey moments and got away with some loose play in almost every area in that half, especially at the breakdown, to turn around trailing only 10-6.
Burns slotted a penalty straight after the restart to cut the deficit to one point.
But then Halani Aulika profited from Matt Cox’s missed tackle to finish a driven lineout with Irish’s second try.
Fleet-footed wing Anthony Watson then punished Burns’ blocked grubber kick, to race 60 metres for a score to shock Gloucester to the core.
As is their wont under Davies though, just when they could have folded they came out fighting.
Davies has asked his men to expand their gameplan in this fortnight, give width and pace to their approach.
Demanding his men attack from deep, the introduction of Morgan and Tindall allowed the Cherry and Whites to do exacly that.
Burns’ switch back to fly-half helped ignite Gloucester too, and combined with the straight-running of Morgan and Tindall in the outside centre channel, the visitors took the game by its scruff.
Murphy capped a series of pick-and-go drives after a lineout maul to kick-start proceedings.
And when Bryn Evans was sin-binned four minutes later Gloucester struck again.
After more tight driving play, Burns squeezed himself over the line from short-range.
And all that came after fine breaks from Dave Lewis, Morgan and Tindall.
Two more Burns penalties edged Gloucester seven points ahead.
But right at the death Irish had two penalty lineouts deep in the Gloucester 22.
Desperate to spark a try, the game’s final play ticked round to more than four minutes.
The Exiles lost their way though, and in the end a forward pass denied Watson the chance to strike for the whitewash.
Davies always said there would be teething problems while Gloucester expanded their gameplan.
But teething problems amid victories are always more than acceptable.
The Cherry and Whites and their formidable resilience march on.
Win at Kingsholm next week, and the quarter-finals come calling.
LONDON IRISH: Tries: Tagicakibau (3), Aulika (45), Watson (48). Cons: Humphreys 2 (3, 45). Pens: Humphreys (25).
GLOUCESTER: Tries: Murphy (55), Burns (61). Cons: Burns 2 (55, 61). Pens: Burns 5 (6, 33, 43, 69, 73).
LONDON IRISH: Evans (59).
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.
GLOUCESTER: M Thomas (R Cook, 41), C Sharples, T Molenaar, F Burns, S Monahan, T Taylor (M Tindall, 52), D Robson (D Lewis, 63), N Wood (D Murphy, 49), D Dawidiuk, S Knight (R Harden, 49), T Savage, J Hamilton (capt), S Kalamafoni, M Cox, G Evans (B Morgan, 49). Unused: Y Thomas, W James.
REFEREE: D Phillips (IRE).