22 April 2001
Brough Scott on the ferocious affair which left Johnson’s side contemplating a bruising trip to France for the final
A fast game, a hard game, a tough game, this was rugby as it should be. Leicester took it, but it was sweat and intensity all the way.
The swamp that must have been the Vicarage Road pitch this winter had dried beautifully but the grass will need a few weeks to come. Yet with a dry ball this quickly became summer rugby. Kneeling close to the pitch you could once again wonder at the speed and power and sheer bloody combat that the game brings.
After the opening Gloucester flourish, the Tigers fans were licking their wounds and the response up the right-hand touchline was animal in its ferocity. Indeed, as full-back Geordan Murphy hurled himself down the wing, the advertising boards seemed so close that one trip and he would be into them.
Trips and tricks and subsequent penalties keep the score ticking, but it’s the breakthrough that gets the crowd roaring. How funny then that after great thrusting runs by Austin Healey, Martin Johnson and Pat Howard the try should be started by Tim Stimpson in almost somnambulist fashion. How much he or, more importantly, Gloucester were distracted by the referee is for others to argue. Down on the pitch, the effect was astonishing.
For here we were in the full intensity of a Heineken Cup semi-final with the Leicester wing apparently wandering through the baffled ranks of red-shirted Gloucester. By the time they realised the whole thing was for real, Stimpson had fed the ball to Leon Lloyd who had sprinted over to the cheering Leicester fans.
On television or high in the grandstand it is easy to under-rate the force of body on body. Long before the first half had ended, Graham Rowntree’s shirt had been ripped right across his chest, Kingsley Jones had gone off for treatment and the Gloucester physio appeared to be a 16th member of their team. In the second half the clash of bodies got tough enough for Johnson and Junior Paramore to be sent to the sin bin.
Important matches build. When Gloucester got back to 12-16 their moments of challenge, although rare, became wonderfully exciting. Terry Fanolua twice broke the line only to be gathered in by the Tigers’ hungry defence.
But quite soon the Leicester screw began to turn and waves of green and red pressure forced Gloucester back. There is a relentlessness about them and we all know where it stems from.
Dean Richards walked by the touchline, the mighty chest encased in an old green Leicester jersey. No noisy histrionics. Just Deano by the line. Who needs more?
Gloucester had Philippe Saint-Andre. Lighter, neater, suit-and-tied but even more intense. He has had a well chronicled list of troubles this season. But his makeshift team were taking him close even if they could have done with some of the electric improvisation of his own glory days.
Late in the game he made a tactical switch, bringing on the faster and bigger Chris Yates for the full-back, Byron Hayward. Ten minutes to go and seven points in it. Some needle crept in as Olivier Azam shoved Lloyd in the face during a ruck and then the front rows traded punches on the touchline.
Then five minutes to go, another Gloucester penalty and it was 15-19. This is big-match tension that only rugby can give. The Leicester supporters cheered but you could hear the nervous yearning in it. Gloucester drove on towards the Leicester line. Howard went to clear, Ian Jones charged down.
Into injury time, a final Gloucester attack swept diagonally all the way to the right-hand corner flag. Gloucester then overturned the Leicester throw. Desperation stuff, bodies everywhere but somehow Healey cleared. It was a time for a cool head and there was Richards, arms folded standing by the duckboards. He sent Mark Cornwell on to replace Will Johnson, just to give Gloucester one more trick to think about.
It had to be over but it wasn’t. Leicester started a huge attack, all the way to Stimpson and Murphy. One stray pass and Fanolua was breaking back with a finale of Saint-Andre signature beckoning. But the cover was there. Combat renewed. The whistle blew. Gloucester’s adventure was over. The Tigers prowl on. Stade Français await in the final.