It was not exactly a pulsating end to the English domestic season – there were far too many basic errors to label the match a classic – but it was a full-blooded occasion, as you’d expect from these two famous west country rivals.
While there was no lack of conviction on the part of the players, at times the execution of even the most basic skills left much to be desired, giving the impression that this was a game too far for many of these worn-out warriors following a long season.
Gloucester dominated the early exchanges, their pack subduing their opponents for long stretches to enable fly-half Ludovic Mercier to kick two early penalties to put the Cherry-and-Whites 6-0 in front.
Bristol could not get their hands on possession for any length of time during that first quarter, such was the efficiency of the Gloucester pack who set up an impressive platform for the halfbacks.
It was not all plain-sailing for the Kingsholm crew though, with some worrying lapses at the set scrummage where Phil Vickery – England captain on the upcoming tour of Argentina – took some time to settle into his game.
When the Shoguns did manage to gain a greater share of ball, they launched an attack deep into Gloucester territory, before gaining a penalty for their troubles. Argentine fly-half Felipe Contepomi made no mistake with the kick at goal, nailing the three points.
Then on 21 minutes, Bristol drew level after Gloucester prop Patrick Collazzo felled Agustin Pichot with a late, high tackle, the French international earning himself a ten-minute spell in the sin-bin. Contepomi was on hand to kick the ensuing penalty.
Bristol failed to make the extra man tell and then things were evened out just five minutes later when wing Phil Christophers also earned a yellow card for a cynical foul on Gloucester Henry Paul, the England prospect tugging the fullback’s jersey to kill off a promising Gloucester attack.
Then, with the clock ticking down towards half-time, Gloucester launched an excellent attack as forwards and backs combined to strike a telling blow against their opponents. First, wing Tom Beim flew down the left hand touchline before stepping inside to set up the ruck.
After some fine approach work from Rob Fidler and James Forrester, scrum-half Andy Gomarsall continued the move with a typical darting run into the Bristol 22, before feeding inside to Collazzo who offloaded a scoring pass to Jake Boer, the flanker crashing over for the first try of the match.
Mercier made no mistake with the conversion to make it 16-3 to Gloucester and added another three points just before the break after a characterisic disciplinary lapse from Bristol lock Garath Archer in his own 22, the former England man lashing out with his boot at the prone body of opponent Forrester.
The second half started well for Bristol, with Agustin Pichot taking advantage of some slack defence from Vickery, Fidler and Paul to take a quick penalty tap and wriggle his way over for a try that put Bristol right back into the match. With Pichot’s compatriot Contepomi adding the extras, the whole complexion of the game changed with Bristol down by 13-16.
Mercier missed with a penalty in the 56th minute after Bristol were penalised at a scrum deep inside their own 22, but Gloucester continued to pile on the pressure on their opponents, driving them back into their own half through a series of powerful forward surges.
The next few minutes saw Bristol exposed in midfield as Gloucester came close to scoring a second try, Terry Fanolua making a magnificent breakthrough in midfield and storming over the Bristol line before being engulfed by three Shoguns in the 60th minute. The referee adjudged that the dreadlocked Samoan had made a double movement and Bristol fans breathed a sigh of relief – for five minutes at least, when Gloucester stretched their lead to 19-13 with another Mercier penalty.
Mercier landed another penalty on 69 minutes after Bristol wing Christophers was penalised for holding on after a tackle by Robert Todd , a crucial score given that Bristol would have to score twice to overhaul their rivals.
But Bristol weren’t finished, with two replacements linking up in the 70th minute to launch a Bristol figh back. First, Ross Beattie tapped down from a lineout in the Gloucester 22, prop Paul Johnstone taking the ball at pace and charging over for a try in the right hand corner. Contepomi slotted an excellent conversion from touchline to set up a nail-biting final act to the match.
Bristol’s joy was shortlived however, with Mercier given another kick at goal following an obstruction by Archer on Junior Paramore. The Frenchmen held his nerve to stretch his side’s lead and, with Contepomi kicking a penalty of his own moments later, the score was poised at 25-23 in Gloucester’s favour going into the final moments of the match.
Fittingly though, it was Mercier who had the last say in the match, the nerveless No.10 sealing the victory with a well-taken penalty in the 83rd minute to enable Gloucester to win the Zurich Championship Trophy.
Bristol:Tries: Agustin Pichot, Paul JohnstoneCons: Felipe Contepomi (2)Pens: Felipe Contepomi (3)
Gloucester:Tries: Jake BoerCons: Ludovic MercierPens: Ludovic Mercier (7)
By Justin O’Regan