The Kings Who Missed Their Coronation
Ten years after rugby had gone professional, one club had risen to the top of the domestic game, but with the introduction of playoffs to decide a winner, Gloucester would never see themselves crowned champions.
74 minutes on the clock, and the cries of ‘Glawster, Glawster’ thunder through Kingsholm. One point down, and driving into the 22; Lawson to Strokosch, he can’t penetrate the defence. Slow ruck; tired players working hard to retain possession. Carlos Nieto picks and steals another metre; ball set. Lawson looks back to Lamb, the defensive line sets itself, Lawson sets himself. The pass goes instead to Willie Walker behind the ruck; drop goal. The thunder has retreated to a murmur; seconds feel like years. The ball hits the right upright. It falls, as if pulled by destiny, to its left; Gloucester have the three points, 25-23; the thunder returns.
5 minutes to go and Gloucester are on course to beat Leicester in the semi-final of the Guinness Premiership, but not without being pushed to the limit in the second half. Four penalties from the boot of Ryan Lamb had brought a half-time lead of 12 points to 3, but after the break Leicester had slowly clawed their way back into the game.
Going into the fixture, Gloucester were sat atop the 2007/8 Premiership table. Leicester on the other hand had scraped into the last four with a final round result over Harlequins, and their form had been patchy. Gloucester were the favourites, and no away side had won in the semi-finals before. Given Gloucester’s loss to Leicester in the final of the previous year, they also had some ghosts that needed laying to rest.
All they needed to do was control possession from the kick-off and they would be on their way to Twickenham.
They did, and yet they found themselves defending. Harry Ellis pops the ball up from the back of the ruck to the marauding Martin Corry; five metres. He hits the floor, shy of the Gloucester 10 metre line, immediately popping the ball up to George Chuter; another five metres. Corry back up off the floor and clears out. Jordan Crane picks up from the base; another ten metres, into the 22. Ellis to Corry again, who links up with Mauger; strong Gloucester defence. The ruck is set; Ellis looks back to Andy Goode in the pocket.
Given Gloucester’s tag as favourites and their strong performance in the first half, they must have been wondering how they found themselves in this position. When the teams met in the final of the previous year, Gloucester were blown away by Leicester’s physicality, and specifically Alesana Tuilagi. However, they had learnt their lesson and brought in players like Lesley Vainikolo and Akapusi Qera to add some brawn. Indeed a great run by Qera and a simple draw and pass had put James Simpson-Daniel over in the 56th minute of this game. Lamb’s conversion brought the score to 22-13.
As Andy Goode’s drop goal sailed inexorably towards it’s glorious destination, the thunder in the crowd rolled away, leaving the muted smatter of Leicester cheer. The life had been strangled out of Kingsholm. Unable to retain the restart, Gloucester fought in vain over the final minutes before Goode put the ball out of play.
The battlefield was littered with the spent bodies of the Gloucester players; a despondent Dean Ryan walking nowhere on the touch-line. Leicester, like thieves in the night, had gate-crashed and spoilt the party. For the second season in a row, they had denied Gloucester the ultimate trophy in English domestic rugby.
Leicester’s head coach Richard Cockerill going into the game had publicly played down his teams chances. After the game, Dean Ryan commented, "We committed suicide in the second half.” Indeed they did.
Great teams throughout the ages win games against all the odds - Leicester have been masters - and this is the biggest failing of arguably Gloucester’s golden generation. They went all the way, nearly.
Their 2007/08 season had been one of ups and rarely downs. Away wins had been exchanged with Leicester, but a win on the road against Wasps in the penultimate round had cemented their place at the top of the table going into the playoffs. They weren’t head and shoulders above the competition, but they were certainly the team to beat.
Their rise to prominence began in 2005, when chairman Tom Walkinshaw put in place changes that would help the club keep pace with the growing professionalism of the game. These were well founded, and the 2005/6 season saw an upturn in the clubs fortunes. Before then in 2003, despite romping to a 15 point lead on top of the Premiership table, they were beaten in the final. A fourth, and then sixth placed finish subsequently followed. The 2005/6 season eventually closed with a defeat to Wasps at Kingsholm in the final round of the regular season, which saw them miss out on a playoff place in the league, but the club would have success in European Competition, winning the Challenge Cup. The club was finding its voice again.
The 2006/7 season kicked off with a victory over perennial rivals Bath at Kingsholm, followed by a victory over newly promoted Harlequins, and then an away draw against Leicester. The wins continued to come, and it wasn’t until the end of November that Gloucester would taste defeat, going down 14-12 to Bristol at the Memorial Ground.
Despite losses to Bath and Saracens, Leicester were continuing to keep pace with the Cherry & Whites, and would continue to do so all season, both team finishing tied on 71 points at the top of the table. In fact, Leicester would have finished ahead of Gloucester had they not been docked one point for fielding an ineligible player. Despite the two teams finishing level, Gloucester had the better win record and so finished top of the table.
A strong semi-final win against Saracens, fifty points to nine, brought Gloucester their first Premiership final against Leicester.
Gloucester worked hard in the final, going ahead early on. By half an hour, they were only one point down, seven points to six. Leicester were slowly beginning to get their claws into the game however, and when Alesana Tuilagi fielded the ball from a Ryan Lamb clearance, inevitability hung in the air. After an interchange with Geordan Murphy, he rampaged down the wing before dotting over the line. Leicester went in leading at half time, twenty-two points to six.
After the break, Gloucester snatched another three points, but they were swimming against the tide. Leicester’s physicality up front had sufficiently turned the game in their favour. Forwards decide who win games, backs decide by how much; if ever that phrase was true, it was this final.
Three tries in the space of 20 minutes, a second for the irrepressible Tuilagi, as well as Andy Goode and Shane Jennings, ultimately ended the game as a contest. Gloucester were left dreaming of what could have been and would go on to lose the game 44-16. Leicester would celebrate a domestic cup double. Gloucester on the other hand, would leave with plenty of lessons to be learnt.
Despite the defeat, Gloucester moved into the 2007/8 season with a growing sense of optimism, and this was to be well founded, and strong performances from James Simpson-Daniel and Lesley Vainikolo, who combined to score 19 of Gloucester’s 65 tries over the course of the season, set them on their way to the top of the table. Their aim for the season, alongside performing well in the league, was to establish themselves in Europe, but despite topping their group, they lost out to eventual winners Munster in the quarter-finals.
The following season would see the club fall to a disappointing 6th position, and after a defeat to Cardiff in the 2009 Anglo-Welsh Cup final, Dean Ryan left the club.
Gloucester had been kings, but missed out on the ultimate domestic prize. There would be no coronation. While they managed a third place finish in 2011, they have failed to finish in the top four since.