Gloucester and La Rochelle met for the third time this season on Saturday night in the semi-final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. After a tense 80 minutes full of deft offloads and huge impacts, the cherry and whites booked their spot in the final with a 14-16 victory over the Top 14 leaders, their only loss at home all season.
For a relatively low-scoring game, there was actually quite a bit to discuss, so I’ve tried to limit myself to what I felt to be the main talking points from the match.
Before kickoff, the BT Sport team mentioned that one of the keys to La Rochelle’s success this season has been having the majority of possession. Gloucester stopped this in the first half, but in the second half the home team had 70% of possession and 77% of territory (though I’m sure most Gloucester fans will agree that it felt like much more than that!). Over the course of the game, they also made over 300 more metres, 6 more clean breaks and beat twice as many defenders as Gloucester! Yet it was Gloucester who came away from the Stade Marcel Deflandre with the victory, as the French were far too wasteful with the ball.
When La Rochelle broke through the Gloucester line, it often felt like the defence was all over the place, but they would quickly recover once the tackle was made and put the home team back under pressure with a quick, physical defensive line, which often led to turnovers or errors from the attackers. Henry Trinder (it’s so good to see him playing regularly again after all his injury issues) was fantastic on the night, winning a number of turnovers and penalties at the breakdown and almost scoring a try.
Despite this, La Rochelle will still feel that they should have won the game, as Brock James – one of the most experienced players on the pitch – left 8 points on the field through missed kicks, as well as throwing the pass that Billy Burns intercepted for Gloucester’s try.
Brock James may not have had the best of nights, but his opposite number Billy Burns had a great game. With older brother Freddie watching on in the BT Sport studio, Burns Jr. scored all 16 of Gloucester’s points courtesy of the aforementioned try and a 100% kick success rate , despite the home crowd’s vocal attempts to put him off. Even many of his shakier moments in the game seemed to end up working in his favour, such as a poor cross field early in the 1st half that conveniently bounced into touch when the La Rochelle winger completely lost his bearings.
Gloucester also did a good job of looking after him in this match. At one of the line outs, Ugo Monye pointed out that Burns was lining up in the 5m channel as opposed to in the fly half’s usual position, so that he was not a target for La Rochelle’s gargantuan strike runners on the first phase. Yet he fronted up whenever necessary and was more than happy to get in the way of the big men, one tackle on a charging Levani Botia off a stolen line out specifically sticking in my mind.
With Owen Williams arriving from Leicester this summer, Billy is certainly doing everything he can to prove that he deserves the number 10 jersey ahead of the Welshman next season.
Dealing with the opposition
As Gloucester played La Rochelle in the pool stages (winning 35-14 at Kingsholm before going down 42-13 in France) they had a good idea of how La Rochelle were going to play this game. It just takes one look at players like Uini Atonio and Jone Qovu in the pack to know that they pride themselves on physical dominance to help them win games. Gloucester knew this and worked their tactics around this. John Afoa scrummages so low, it becomes difficult for a larger opponent to compete against him at the scrums. Josh Hohneck and Paddy McAllister also did a very good job of holding their own against the French team’s props. But more importantly, Gloucester tried to make sure that scrums on their feed were over as quickly as possible by feeding the ball as directly as they could to the number 8 (it wasn’t even done slyly) and getting the ball out as soon as it reached his feet. This meant that provided they could withstand the initial engagement they were generally able to get the ball away without a problem, though they did not necessarily have the platform for the backs to create much on the first phase.
They also did a good job of keeping possession in the first half (61%) and spreading the ball from side to side as much as possible in an attempt to wear out La Rochelle’s big boys, which seemed to work as a number of them were replaced relatively soon after half time. In the second half, when La Rochelle began to take control, Gloucester used their line speed to stop the strike runners before they could get going and were happy to clear the ball downfield to force the home team to run back towards their own line while the cherry and whites reorganised their defence for the next attack.
As much as Gloucester can consider themselves lucky that Brock James left his kicking boots at home, La Rochelle can also consider themselves lucky to have only spent 10 minutes playing with 14 men!
Jone Qovu’s elbow drop on Willi Heinz got worse with every viewing and was arguably deserving of a red card on its own. But he didn’t stop there and was lucky the officials missed his punch to the midriff of Richard Hibbard, who was unbelievably warned about simulation by the referee! Granted, Hibbard may have – in my opinion accidentally – grabbed the Fijian in a sensitive area, but that is no excuse for his actions. Either of these incidents is worthy of a suspension, so I will be flabbergasted if Qovu plays again this season.
Captain Uini Atonio was also probably lucky to escape sanction during the game, with one late – and possibly high – hit on Heinz quickly followed up by a hit on Hibbard that was so far off the ball it wasn’t even visible on the live transmission, yet neither of these incidents even resulted in a Gloucester penalty!
I can’t really say much more on the Atonio incidents, and I also have a lot of sympathy for the match officials, as the French broadcasters in charge of the pictures we see are notorious for avoiding replays of anything that could result in a home player being sent off. The BT Sport commentators even mentioned this when they expressed surprise at the fact we got to see replays of Qovu’s elbow. Meanwhile, the footage of his punch on Hibbard was not picked up on until the end of the game and I am yet to see a replay of either of Atonio’s challenges!
This was a stunning game, and with so much on the line it was good to see Gloucester hold on under such heavy pressure. The last few seasons under Director of Rugby David Humphreys have not been the success anyone would have hoped, but Gloucester have generally pulled it together for Challenge Cup games, having only lost 2 in the last 3 seasons (at home to the Dragons in last season’s quarter-final and this season’s pool match at La Rochelle), while they are now appearing in their second Challenge Cup final in 3 years. Hopefully they can go on to repeat their heroics at Murrayfield, when they take on Stade Francais!
What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge