London Irish saw their hopes of reaching the Guinness Premiership title play-offs suffer a huge setback after they were crushed 34-20 by Gloucester at Kingsholm on Saturday.
The Exiles, beaten Guinness Premiership finalists last season, were blown away by a Gloucester side that blazed into a 27-3 interval lead. Wings Lesley Vainikolo and James Simpson-Daniel scored tries, while fly-half Nicky Robinson kicked 19 points and there was a second-half touchdown for substitute prop Alasdair Dickinson.
Irish, twice reduced to 14 men after yellow cards, posted consolation touchdowns by lock Kieran Roche, flanker Steffon Armitage and prop Dan Murphy, while Tom Homer kicked a penalty and ex-Gloucester player Ryan Lamb added a conversion.
Their play-off hopes, though, are now hanging by a thread. Even if they beat high-flying Northampton in a fortnight’s time, results involving rivals Wasps and Bath must still go their way. The chances are they will miss out, but Irish can have few complaints based on this latest evidence.
Irish showed two changes from the side that suffered a shock home defeat against lowly Leeds Carnegie last weekend, with wing centre Elvis Seveali’i and number eight Richard Thorpe both gaining recalls. But the switches made little difference, with Gloucester far sharper in thought and deed throughout a game they controlled from start to finish.
Gloucester were captained by England centre Mike Tindall as they looked to consolidate a mid-table Guinness Premiership position in their final home game of the season. And Irish were quickly on the back foot, conceding an early penalty to Robinson before their Samoan international centre Seilala Mapusua limped off after taking a hefty knock to his right knee.
Homer, Mapasua’s replacement, landed an equalising penalty following a yellow card for Gloucester flanker Akapusi Qera, but the home side were not troubled during his 10-minute absence. Gloucester forged ahead when the impressive Robinson’s inch-perfect crosskick was caught by Vainikolo for a try, yet that was only the start of Irish’s troubles.
Woeful indiscipline was readily punished by referee Sean Davey, and dead-eye Robinson booted three more penalties during a damaging six-minute spell for the visitors. Irish had it all top do at 17-3 adrift approaching the interval as Gloucester enjoyed clear supremacy, but there was no sign of the horror story ending.
Gloucester had the bit between their teeth, and when Irish wing Delon Armitage was sin-binned for obstruction, more agony followed. Robinson landed his fifth penalty before Gloucester struck with a 70-metre breakaway try for Simpson-Daniel when an Irish attack floundered.
Former Wales international Robinson added the extras, and the game was effectively done and dusted at the break with Gloucester an emphatic – and deserved – 24 points clear. Vainikolo did not return for the second-half, watching from the sidelines with strapping on his right knee as Charlie Sharples replaced him.
And it was Irish who struck first on the scoreboard, driving Gloucester’s forwards backwards from close range and Roche claiming the touchdown. Malone, though, missed an easy conversion, hitting the post from just 20 metres out that summed up an often shambolic team display.
It was one of his final contributions to the match as he made way for Lamb, who was booed by many home fans among a 15,000 crowd. Both coaches started making changes, and Gloucester began to exert territorial dominance again following a low-key third quarter.
Gloucester’s New Zealand prop Greg Somerville appeared off the bench for his final Kingsholm appearance before returning Down Under this summer, and the home scrum suddenly began to cause Irish all kinds of trouble.
Gloucester knew one more score would finish the game, and Irish saw substitute Murphy sin-binned for pulling down a scrum with the home side camped just five metres from their line. Irish somehow cleared the danger, only for Dickinson to put them out of their misery when he rumbled over from five metres.