Gloucester have a good sized and experienced squad but even so their head coach Dean Ryan must have been tearing his hair out over the timing of such a huge game in the middle of the RBS 6 Nations Championships.
He found himself with seven players out injured and another seven on international duty at various levels. And, while Ryan was able to field a good team, with only centre Rudi Keil, the former Natal Sharks player, not used to rugby in the Premiership, he was given a late headache when England A scrum-half Peter Richards failed a fitness test on a shoulder injury picked up against London Irish in late January.
So this was a night where Leicester, buoyed by the new one-year contract extensions of head coach Pat Howard and assistant Richard Cockerill, could take advantage with a mighty team including British Lions Ollie Smith, Austin Healey and Graham Rowntree plus wing sensation Tom Varndell named to start.
After both fly-halves – Leicester’s Ian Humphreys and Ludovic Mercier from Gloucester – had booted penalties, the sides got a bit rowdy after home scrum-half Simon Amor put his boot too near grounded Smith. Leicester had the upper hand during the opening quarter but the Cherry and Whites hit the Tigers with a hammer blow.
Full-back Jon Goodridge, who was making his first start in the Gloucester side since December 17, fielded a loose kick into his own 22 and ran at the visiting defence. Goodridge found space and, to the roars of his home crowd, weaved his way within 10 metres ofthe Leicester line before being hauled down by Varndell.
However, support was on hand in the shape of centre Terry Fanolua and wing Mark Foster to release the ball from the ruck and feed wing James Bailey for an easy run-in under the posts that Mercier converted. After Gloucester were accused of not rolling away from a ruck on half-way, Humphreys rifled over a long-range penalty to bring his side within four points of the opposition.
However, a silly mistake from the Tigers, when they put hands into a ruck, allowed the powerful boot of Frenchman Mercier to bang over a 30-metre penalty almost immediately. The Tigers drove relentlessly to within inches of the home line, won a penalty but captain Healey chose to take a line-out rather than a tap drive with the opposition on the back foot. It did not work out, a potential seven points were wasted and the tide turned back in a hard-fought first-half to the West Country side. Leicester gave away three penalties within six minutes of the start of the second half.
Mercier was merciless in his execution and landed all of the shots at goal and the Cherry and Whites were close to securing the victory they desired. Gloucester really made the Tigers suffer when their mighty pack, with the front row excellent, pushed the visitors backwards on their own line to the extent that the back row came around offside and referee Wayne Barnes had no option but to run between the posts and award a penalty try which Mercier converted. Leicester did manage to find some sort of fight when Will Johnson, brother of England World Cup-winning captain Martin, was in the middle of a maul which drove the West Country side backwards.
But Gloucester were in command and a superb move down the left and a looping pass from Mercier to wing Mark Foster wrapped things up for the Cherry and Whites. Leicester replacement Ephraim Taukafa grabbed a late try for his side but it was far too late to effect the outcome of the match and the Cherry and Whites pushed themselves into third place.