Gloucester 29 – 24 Northampton
After an embarrassing defeat away to Sale Sharks the previous week, a number of supporters appeared to be dreading the arrival of the league leaders at Kingsholm. With no sign of the injury crisis that has afflicted the squad abating, Johan Ackermann was forced to make a very late change to the starting line-up as Ed Slater suffered a dislocated finger in the warm-up. His replacement, Jeremy Thrush had commented in the press conferences in the week that he was focused on improving the stuttering lineout that has plagued the Cherry and Whites this season.
Certainly when he is in the team, generally the set-piece does perform better however it is frustrating that the weakness in the scrum (which appears to have been fixed) has now been replaced by one in the lineout. Too often this season, Gloucester have found themselves in good positions only to turn over the ball – sometimes under no defensive pressure from the opposition.
Northampton arrived at Kingsholm buoyant after 4 consecutive victories. Their opening game defeat to Saracens apparently overcome and now looking once again like playoff contenders. A revived George North, Luther Burrell and Harry Mallinder, all big ball carriers with pace and guile were probably not the opposition Ackermann would like to have seen following the previous weeks demolition. But Gloucester have their own threats, particularly in Henry Trinder, who now free of injury is beginning to show his undoubted talent. Hopefully for the centre, he will remain fit and healthy and continue is form which must be attracting the attention of Eddie Jones.
It was Trinder who opened the scoring, following a blindside move off a scrum. Gloucester have looked dangerous all season with ball in hand, but on so many occasions have found ways to lose the ball with the line beckoning. True to form, a knock on at a breakdown resulted in a Northampton attack from their own line and only an unfortunate bounce of the ball prevented George North scoring a contender for Try of the Season. The scores were levelled soon after anyway and much of the first half followed a pattern of errors from both sides. Gloucester led into half time following a second Trinder try, but his poor kick and a missed tackle by Henry Purdy gave Mallinder his opportunity to score.
It does appear that Gloucester are a different team when at home, if the coaching staff can work out how to bottle the intensity and desire the side show at Kingsholm and bring it their away performances there will be a real opportunity to reach the top 4, not just the top 6. Henry Trinder was having the game of his life and it was his athleticism and skill that started another move and eventual score as he claimed an Owen Williams restart. Williams in his first home start was often excellent with ball in hand but looked nervous over the kicking tee. It appeared he was trying to hit the ball too hard and skewed his first 3 attempts at goal. When he did finally add the extra two points after Billy Twelvetrees had secured a try bonus point, the home supporters cheered with a hint of sarcasm.
Soon afterwards, Captain Willie Heinz added a fifth try capping his own excellent performance. Under the previous management Heinz attracted his fair share of comment and criticism from supporters. Clearly however, the other members of the squad and the coaching team value his contribution and when playing like this he is a fantastic asset to the club. A section of the supporters will never warm to him, preferring a more exciting style epitomised by Ben Vellacott. However the need for a cool head and someone who is able to play the percentages may in these early stages of the Ackermann revolution be vital. Vellacott’s energy and pace is very useful when defences are tiring and his pass is probably the best of all the clubs number 9’s however he is still inexperienced and will need time to learn where and when to make a break, kick or take the safer option.
The final few minutes were once again tense as Northampton fought back and Williams’ earlier missed kicks meant the Saints were only one unconverted try from levelling. Fortunately for Gloucester, referee Wayne Barnes spotted accidental offside at a lineout and the home side claimed their third win of the season.
Northampton had come as leaders but didn’t perform as such. Too many errors and unable to put pressure on the Gloucester pack meant that their opportunities were generated from mistakes rather than sustained pressure. They undoubtedly have some excellent players and the acquisition of South African scrum half Cobus Reinach looks very shrewd. Harry Mallinder is also a player who offers so much but it was noticeable when Stephen Myler entered the fray, the Saints played with a little more purpose and poise. Very much like Gloucester, they are a side capable of brilliant performances one week and abject the other, but if the Cherry and Whites finish above them at the end of the season one would assume that the minimum expectation of a top 6 finish will have been met.