England captain Phil Vickery made a losing return to Kingsholm as deposed European champions Wasps suffered their fifth GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP defeat of the season.
But there was good news for England head coach Brian Ashton ahead of next Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales at Twickenham.
Vickery and seven of his England training squad colleagues all appeared to emerge unscathed from a punishing contest, allowing Ashton to breathe easily.
Gloucester’s victory cemented their place at the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP summit, yet Wasps almost pulled off a thrilling triumph.
Trailing 18-3 to six Ryan Lamb penalties, there appeared no way back for the Londoners.
Desperately needing points to lift them away from a lowly eighth place, converted tries by substitute hooker James Buckland and centre Dominic Waldouck left Gloucester hanging on.
In the end though, Gloucester had just enough know-how and experience to deny Wasps, who left the west country with the scant consolation of a losing bonus point.
Gloucester went into battle without England squad member Lesley Vainikolo, who rested a knee injury sustained on Heineken Cup duty against Ulster last weekend, so Iain Balshaw moved from full-back and Willie Walker wore the number 15 jersey.
Wasps though, had considerably greater problems, travelling to face the league leaders minus England trio Paul Sackey, Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley, while hooker Raphael Ibanez began a four-week suspension.
They were also without a GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP away win since last March, while Gloucester targeted their 17th successive home league victory.
Lamb booted Gloucester into an early 6-0 lead, but only because his opposite number Danny Cipriani missed two penalties, and Wasps gave as good as they got during the initial exchanges.
Referee Dave Pearson grew increasingly frustrated with Wasps’ work around the fringes though, and after Lamb and Cipriani exchanged penalties, he lost patience.
England back-row hopeful James Haskell was the first player punished, sin-binned for not releasing possession in a tackle, then lock Tom Palmer followed suit.
Palmer’s departure on the stroke of half-time – it came as Haskell prepared to rejoin the action – gifted Lamb a fourth successful penalty.
Wasps coped admirably in adversity without Haskell’s powerful presence – skipper Lawrence Dallaglio leading the way in defence – and at 12-3 adrift, they remained in contention.
Gloucester’s biggest problem was finding a way of outwitting Wasps’ renowned blitz defence, while the visitors looked a bigger threat with ball in hand, notably through full-back Josh Lewsey and wing David Doherty.
Lamb quickly resumed normal business after the break, landing two further penalties as Wasps’ one-man disadvantage punished them.
A brilliant offload by number eight Gareth Delve and weaving run from centre James Simpson-Daniel almost cut Wasps open, but although the opening try did not arrive, Lamb’s relentless accuracy kept Gloucester comfortably clear.
Wasps needed to turn the tide, and midway through the third quarter, they finally stung themselves into action.
A double substitution – Dan Leo replaced Dallaglio and Buckland took over from Joe Ward – immediately had the desired effect.
Lamb was yellow-carded for a technical offence, Wasps rifled the resulting penalty into touch and a smart lineout move resulted in an unmarked Buckland powering over.
Cipriani put his earlier kicking woes behind him to land the difficult conversion, reducing Gloucester’s advantage to 18-10.
Gloucester’s sense of control at 15 points clear had evaporated, and Wasps continued their admirable fightback by touching down again on 66 minutes.
A spell of incessant pressure was rewarded when Waldouck capitalised on Lamb’s fragile defending to cross unopposed, before Cipriani’s conversion made it 18-17.
Gloucester lost all shape and composure as they strove to avoid a third defeat in the last four GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP and Heineken Cup games.
Wasps, meanwhile, sensed an unlikely victory – their first league away win for 10 months – as the clock ticked down.
But it was not to be as Gloucester exerted a late stranglehold, keeping possession before replacement scrum-half Gareth Cooper booted the ball high into the terraces and Pearson sounded the final whistle.