Friday 1 May 2015 – 7.45pm
Twickenham Stoop, London
European Challenge Cup Final
After a few years of controversy and smokey negotiations, a qualifying competition that meant some teams didn’t know where they would be travelling to three weeks before a fixture, and two-week breaks between the knockout stages, it was finally time for the first European final under the new regime last night.
Gloucester, the great underachievers of English rugby in recent seasons and winners of the Challenge Cup in 2006, were looking for their first trophy since beating our Falcons in the 2011 LV= Cup Final. Their opponents, Edinburgh, were the first Scottish side to reach a European final and looking to become the first club team from north of the border to win a major professional trophy.
Although our boys were well beaten (trounced, you might say) at Exeter in the quarter-finals a month ago, there was one Falcon at the finalwith Mike Blair in the BT Sport commentary box. Former KP favourite Tim Visser was on the wing for Edinburgh in one of his last games for the Scots before he moves to the Stoop next season. Fraser “Sunshine on Leith accent” McKenzie was among Alan Solomons’ replacements.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne got Edinburgh on the scoreboard in the third minute after John Afoa was penalised for killing the ball, the perfect start for the Scots, though before the first ten minutes was done Greig Laidlaw had brought Gloucester back on terms.
Soon after, the first try came following a great break from Jonny May through the middle, and the England winger offloaded to the onrushing Billy Twelvetrees. The Gloucester captain crossed under the posts for his third try in a week (we remember the first two, don’t we?) and the score had swung to 3-10 in favour of the Cherry ‘n’ Whites.
May almost scored one of the tries of the season later, taking a loose ball just metres outside his own 22 and storming through the field, eventually being tapped five metres from the line. His flinging pass couldn’t find the supporting Twelvetrees, but Edinburgh lock Anton Bresler was sin-binned in the ruck and Gloucester kept the pressure on. A succession of scrums ended with a penalty to Edinburgh after the packs collapsed again, to Scottish cheers of relief.
The team formerly known as the Gunners went on the attack, and the final pass flew into touch five metres out on the right but referee Jerome Garces had already awarded a penalty. Hidalgo-Clyne knocked over the three points seconds before Bresler returned to the field, meaning that Edinburgh had gained three points while down to fourteen men. Laidlaw quickly cancelled that penalty out though.
The half-time ended 6-13 to Gloucester.
The south-westerners began the second half with intent, putting pressure on the Edinburgh 22 before Gareth Evans knocked on. Gloucester dominated possession in the first ten minutes of the second half and finally got their reward with a third Laidlaw penalty. Edinburgh fly-half Phil Burleigh kicked his restart out on the full, and after another quick penalty went over, remarkably the next restart went straight out too. It’s those times that you might start to think that it’s not going to be your night.
Tim Visser got his first real chance to have a go at Gloucester, his chip over the defence went dead just before the winger could get to it, although I thought there might have been a pull on the Flying Dutchman but the officials disagreed. There was a TMO intervention however, Gloucester’s Ross Moriarty being sent to the bin for kneeing a prone opponent in the back. It was a great spot of a bad foul.
13 points down with 25 minutes to go, and a man up, Edinburgh really needed to get back into the game quickly. The Scots found their way to a rare trip into the Gloucester 22 and won a penalty, going for the corner – they needed a try really at this point. Unfortunately for the men in black, after their driving maul collapsed, the ball was knocked on.
As Edinburgh put together their best backs move of the game, which ultimately ended in Gloucester touching down a kick behind the tryline, the play was again brought back and cherry centre Bill Meakes was shown a red card on the TMO’s recommendation for a high tackle off the ball. Twelvetrees may have been shocked to hear that his centre partner was being permanently dismissed, but it was a pretty horrendous excuse for a tackle!
Edinburgh had about a minute of two-man advantage, and finally the blacks got their lifeline as Ross Ford picked up from the back of a ruck powered over for a vital try. Hidalgo-Clyne added the extras and, with fifteen minutes to go, it was game on!
Gloucester had to defend valiantly in the face of some strong Scottish pressure, and did so, winning two penalties and getting a lineout in the Edinburgh 22. A six-point lead is dangerous – it’s big enough for a bit of comfort, but one break and a try under the posts and you’re going to be behind.
Five minutes to go now and Gloucester attacked. The shedheads were in fine voice in south-west London, roaring on the Cherry and Whites as they kept the ball tight. Down to two minutes – not enough time for two kicks now, so only an Edinburgh try could change the result. But even then, they had to get the ball.
One minute to go and it’s a Gloucester penalty for offside! Laidlaw took the penalty, and by the time he sent the kick deep into the darkness the clock was on zero – it flew wide but it didn’t matter, the game was over and Gloucester had their first trophy for four years with a score of 13-19!
Jonny May was named man of the match, however I’d have given the award to Laidlaw, who was a livewire all evening for Gloucester and kept a cool head throughout a topsy-turvy second half.
Edinburgh did well to make a real game of it when they looked down and out early in the second half, but well done to Gloucester, worthy winners of this competition and they now go into the play-offs for a Champions Cup place.
It’s the big one tomorrow night, Clermont Auvergne v Toulon to decide 2015’s European champions. That one could be totally dour, or it could be a belter like tonight. It’s been a tricky first season for the new European competitions, off the field at least, lets hope for a classic match on the pitch to top it off.
(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)