Vainikolo keeps Gloucester door to Europe open
A good win here for Gloucester -- just a shame they play their best rugby these days when it no longer matters.
The good denizens of the Shed will tell you that it always matters when you play at Kingsholm, and they may have a point, but they will really roar only when their beloved team can win as comfortably as this when there is something tangible at stake.
Mind you, this win puts Gloucester in second position in the pool. They are still too far away to catch Biarritz, who are now confirmed as the first to qualify for the quarter-finals, but this season second place in a pool means more than usual. Gloucester need too many results to go their way to be at all confident of qualifying as one of the two best runners-up, but there are places in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup on offer to the three next best.
So this win will get better the more the implications sink in. Indeed, a bonus-point win would not have flattered Gloucester, and that would, in theory at least, have kept alive their hopes of catching Biarritz at the top of the pool. Their ambition might easily have yielded four tries with a little more precision -- and a little less mud. But, with the Biarritz defence stretched and vulnerable to a stiletto thrust, too many passes checked the progress of the recipient.
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu provided much of Gloucester's thrust, a head-guarded assassin who ran through much of the gamut of skills required in this game -- power, pace and subtlety of hand. He tore through Biarritz's midfield off quick line-out ball in the final quarter and slipped a pass to Lesley Vainikolo with the line at his mercy.
Sadly, the Volcano's pace is not what it once was, and he was cut down yards short but off-loaded to Tim Molenaar for Gloucester's second try, which buried Biarritz at 23-3. It also allowed the home side to think about that bonus point with 12 minutes to go, but enough was enough. Consolidation is the name of the game when you've had the time of it that Gloucester have had this season.
They were happy to take the win -- so happy, indeed, that they took a lap of honour to thank the 10,000 fans in attendance. Really, if they had wanted that bonus point, they needed to capitalise on their domination of the first half, which was pretty much total. That was when they looked as if they were really enjoying themselves.
Vainikolo scored the first try in the middle of it all, showing just enough pace this time to squeeze home out wide, after Alasdair Dickinson had shown at least as much again in rampaging through Biarritz's fringe defence.
Kingsholm, however depleted, was in good voice at that point. Their boys were all at it, skipping and charging at Biarritz, from James Simpson-Daniel right up the weight scale to the Gareth Delves and David Attwoods. Biarritz were hard to shake off at the breakdown, which did much to kill Gloucester's momentum, but they were support acts for that first 40 minutes.
Talking of Biarritz brings us to why Gloucester will not get too carried away with this. French teams are never less dangerous than when they know they do not really have to win. And when they are obliged to travel with such knowledge to a dark, dank field a long way from home in midwinter, you can forget it.
Here, they travelled with the added handicap of having lost three of their best players the previous week. No Fabien Barcella, Damien Traille or Gloucester old boy, Dimitri Yachvili -- a roll call of afflicted that would hurt anyone in this competition.
The rain came ever more relentlessly out of the sky as the game wore on, which might have made Biarritz even less inclined to make a game of it, but they dug in and dominated the second half, in so far as they denied Gloucester much of the ball.
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu's slashing breaks kept Gloucester out of harm's way, but Biarritz did register a late try when Imanol Harinordoquy broke through after multiple scrums and drives in what analysts seem to call the red zone.
It did not make any difference, but Harinordoquy is a name to conjure with in more ways than one, and when he is rejoined by Biarritz's other luminaries we can expect rather more from them than we saw here.
A home win next week will see them to a home quarter-final, which means danger for everyone else. An away win for Gloucester in Newport, meanwhile, will see them through to the Challenge Cup. A cynic will say that that means they will surely choke, but an optimist may feel that they have turned a corner with this uplifting win.
Scorers -- Gloucester: L Vainikolo, T Molenaar try each, N Robinson 3 pens, 2 cons. Biarritz: I Harinordoquy Try, V Courent pen
Gloucester: O Morgan; J Simpson-Daniel, T Molenaar, E Fuimaono-Sapolu (F Burns 77), L Vainkolo; N Robinson, R Lawson; A Dickinson, S Lawson, G Somerville; D Attwood (A Eustace 76) A Brown; A Strokosch (L Narraway 37), A Qera, G Delve (capt)
Biarritz: I Balshaw; I Bolakoro, A Mignardi, A Erinle, T Ngwenya; V Courrent (L Tranier 67), Y Lesgourgues; E Coetzee, R Terrain (B August 52), R Hugues (M Moala 49) J Thion, M Carizza (T Hall 52), M lund, I Harinodriquy, S Vahufolau (F Alexandre 63)
Referee: G Clancy (IRFU)