Last night, not least seeking refuge from BBC1’s annual fundraising orgy Children In Need, I tuned in to watch Harlequins play away in the Premiership against Gloucester on BT Sport.
Gloucester is one of the great English rugby institutions. There’s no football to speak of in the vicinity and the club has been one of the bastions of West Country rugby union for over a century and a quarter. You always knew what you were going to get with those boys – a formidable pack of no-nonsense forwards who thrived on dominating their opposition, a succession of great kickers, slick running backs and a knowledgeable and highly-partisan crowd boasting within it the hard-core fans of the legendary ‘Shed’ stand that made Kingsholm the kind of place the faint-hearted never wished to play.
The reputation has slipped somewhat in recent times when Gloucester have consistently promised more than they delivered. Last season, in prospect, coach Nigel Davies seemed to have gathered a host of stellar imports to finally bolster their exciting creative backs with a big and ugly pack that would prompt fear up and down the land, just like in the old days.
Six games into the autumn the truth was revealed. Gloucester’s new tight five were another group of under-powered pussy cats which even mid-table teams could boss. The season fell apart and Davies and his coaching team were eventually shown the door, to be replaced by Ireland’s ‘lost great’ fly half David Humphreys of Ulster who had to play second fiddle to Ronan O’Gara for most of his playing career. Humphreys brought Nick Walshe, coach of England’s Junior World Cup-winning England Under-20 team, and Australian tyro Laurie Fisher with him and suddenly things down west have been looking up.
Last night Gloucester captain and rejected England squadder Billy Twelvetrees was back in harness, playing fly-half because James Hook had been called up by Wales. Thanks to the recent gales, the pitch was sodden and – deliberately or otherwise – the grass had been cut about two notches too long to aid running rugby.
This was not a rugby spectacle to remain long in the memory. We were immediately on the wrong side of Kiwi referee Andrew Small (not one of our favourite officials) and conceded five penalties to one in the first half-hour – on three occasions seemingly unfairly to this viewer – of which Twelvetrees potted four to put Gloucester 12-0 ahead.
Quins then gradually worked their way into it. Strong defence kept out the home team which dominated possession throughout the first half. Subsequently two forward rumbles, either side of the break, resulted in Quins tries and then a last-minute kick-through fielded by winger Charlie Walker secured our third and a welcome (eventually-deserved) 15-22 victory … and we don’t get many of those down at Kingsholm. It took us – temporarily, with other games to come this weekend – up to fifth in the table.
The decisive factors in the outcome were Quins’ forward grunt and all-round defensive effort. In that sense, we played tough pragmatic rugby, wholly against type. We are now the mostly miserly Premiership team in terms of tries conceded, ahead of reigning champions Northampton Saints who lost last night to Exeter Chiefs.
After our stuttering start to the season, I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies.