gets over the gain line, behind the headline.
Gloucester is like no other city in England, the only one where the rugby team commands an active support almost 500 times greater than the football club.
Kingsholm has always been different for reasons other than filling the place to its 16,000 brim while Gloucester City FC ekes out a lonely existence in the seventh tier of English soccer. Their average attendance for the last three home matches? 327.
On a social scale, rugby in Gloucester has always stood apart from the rest of England as anti-establishment, a working man’s club with a rich tradition for giving every opponent, especially the toffs from Harlequins, a bloody nose before seeing them off the premises with lashings of ale.
Munster knew what it felt like, losing distant pool matches there during a long, often painful apprenticeship over the five years before they conquered Europe in 2006. They have been to Kingsholm, or ‘Castle Grim’ as the locals call it, twice since, winning a quarter-final under skipper Paul O’Connell in 2008 and a pool tie five years ago.
Tomorrow night’s incursion is fraught with enough danger that if it were to go belly-up, Gloucester could conceivably turn the table upside down by jumping from bottom to top. Munster will be wary, not least because they will see a lot of themselves in the no-frills culture of the opposition.
Gloucester are blue-collar and proud of it in the way Welsh clubs like Neath used to be before decades of industrial neglect took its rusting toll. The language from The Shed, so called presumably because the low roof had a cattle-class look about it, has been a bit too blue for some sensitive souls but not for one famous opponent, aka ‘The Pitbull’.
Brian Moore, ex-Quins, England, and Lions, loves the place. “Over the years I’ve taken some fearful stick from Gloucester followers but I always felt they were passionate about rugby, that the stick gave everyone a good laugh rather than being malicious. Gloucester is different and the ordeal there is to be vastly enjoyed.”
Another England and Lions hooker, Peter Wheeler, would not have been quite as complimentary.
A story, perhaps apocryphal, from a Leicester match at Kingsholm, claimed that when the ball disappeared into The Shed for a Leicester throw, Wheeler avoided going after it for fear of being attacked by old women armed with umbrellas.
Back in the day, the city’s booming junior clubs ensured that when they won the inaugural English Cup final at Twickenham in 1972, they did so with an all-local team except for a Welsh lock, Jim Jarrett, and a Cornish stand-off, Tom Palmer. That still left enough locals to match Celtic’s unbeatable feat in winning the European Cup with an 11 born within a 30-mile radius of Glasgow.
The ‘Cherry and Whites’ picked the cherries from a bountiful orchard. Every district and just about every council estate had its club: Spartans, Matson, Coney Hill, Gordon League, Old Cents, Hucclecote, Widden, Old Cryptians, and Longlevens. Their alumni includes a tighthead whose success as a global entrepreneur smashed the theory about props not being able to run and think at the same time. Mike Burton, one of the invincibles from the 1974 Lions who still lives in Gloucester, will be there tomorrow. He fears it will result in his team missing the boat for the quarter-finals, just as they have missed every one since Munster torpedoed them in 2008.
“We have a lot to overcome,” he says.
“Munster are not the force they used to be but they nearly always find a way to win and I’m expecting them to find a way to win this one.”
Burton speaks from experience of Munster’s supremacy in the art of escapology as illustrated during the ‘Miracle Match’ in Limerick 16 years ago, when they had to win by 27 points to qualify.
Nobody gave them a prayer.
Gloucester managed to lose 33-6 and Burton, engaged for the afternoon as a radio pundit, ended up almost lost for words.
A Premiership wipeout could be game-changer
How ironic that just about every surviving English Premiership side could be eliminated from the Champions’ Cup this weekend at a time when they are busy picking another fight with the RFU at Twickenham.
Three of their seven contenders, Bath, Leicester and Wasps, have already gone. Three more, Gloucester, Newcastle and Exeter, will be counted out should they lose to Munster, Montpellier and Castres respectively. And that would leave Saracens as the lone English survivor, always assuming they survive the trip to Lyon.
The downside about such a doomsday scenario is that it will give the club owners still more time to consider the next move in their fight with the RFU over their refusal to sanction the abolition of relegation from the Premiership. How long the governing body continues to govern remains to be seen.
As revealed last weekend, they have already discussed breaking away and running their own competition, some 26 years after the big football clubs blazed the trail in forming the Premier League. The agitation coincides with a private equity firm, CVC, paying around €250m to run the commercial rights.
Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One, involved at a time when CVC ran the sport, talks about ‘tarting up’ rugby, with the sky the limit. No matter how high or low the tarting goes, it has the potential, for better and worse, to cause a tsunami of change to the game in Ireland and far beyond.
The power-brokers keep banging on about the US and the vast amount of money to be made there, as if Americans are queuing up by the million to watch rugby. Recent evidence suggests otherwise, most notably early last season when Newcastle switched their home match against Saracens to a stadium in Philadelphia and wound up with fewer than they would have had on Tyneside.
Before the event, watched by 6,271 in a stadium two-thirds empty, Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty thanked the city of Brotherly Love for its ‘full commitment to the success of the match’.
Imagine how many fewer would have turned up had Philadelphia been less than fully committed...
Jalibert in good company
This time last year, Matthieu Jalibert played for Bordeaux in a European Challenge Cup tie against the Dragons, one last appearance before his capping as the first teenaged international fly-half for more than a quarter of a century.
A mercurial talent, Jalibert made his bow in a Parisian downpour against Ireland. As CJ Stander said pre-match: “He’s very exciting and tries anything from anywhere. You don’t know what he’s going to try so you’ve got to get in his face and just try to shut him down.”
Jalibert lasted 29 minutes before smashing a knee. Nobody has questioned the legality of the tackle but the then 19-year-old has not played since, another victim of the fragile nature of his occupation.
It won’t be any consolation but he is in good company. A complete team of international players, a pack of Lions among them, will not make it to the starting grid for the Six Nations beginning in three weeks’ time and by then the probability is that the casualty list will have lengthened.
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales);
Anthony Watson (England),
Jamie Joseph (England),
Mark Bennett (Scotland),
Jack Nowell (England);
Matthieu Jalibert (France),
Kieran Marmion (Ireland);
Nicky Smith (Wales),
Dylan Hartley (England),
Zander Fagerson (Scotland);
Iain Henderson (Ireland),
Richie Gray (Scotland);
Chris Robshaw (England),
Ellis Jenkins (Wales),
John Barclay (Scotland).
Green hue to rugby’s ‘Oscar’
Rugby’s supreme Oscar will be awarded at the Rugby Writers’ Club annual bash in central London next Monday night.
Just about everyone who is anyone, from Mervyn Davies to Jason Robinson, has won the Pat Marshall award, named in memory of the former Daily Express journalist.
Since its inception in 1976, it has been won by a trio of Irishmen, Ollie Campbell (1982), Mick Doyle (1985), Brian O’Driscoll (2008). Four of the five nominees for Monday’s award are either Irish (Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong) or doing famous things for Irish rugby (Joe Schmidt, Stuart Lancaster).
The only non-Irish contender, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, could come through on the rails but it promises to be an Irish clean sweep at an English venue, fully two months ahead of Cheltenham…