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A tough, physical, bruising Zurich Premiership battle, that's how to describe Saturday's London Wasps 23-16 victory over Nigel Melville's Gloucester.
The game had all the ingredients of a mouth-watering encounter. London Wasps with a nine match unbeaten home record that stretched back to Loftus Road, Gloucester, current league leaders and unbeaten; both sides held to a draw against Bath earlier on in the season and to add more spice, a former London Wasps Director of Rugby, Nigel Melville. It was like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. Something had to give, and it took all of four minutes to happen, when Gloucester lock Adam Eustace was shown a red card by referee Williams for putting a boot into Alex King. King, stood up, shook out the cobwebs and neatly slotted the resulting penalty to open the scoring for the day.
The fact that Gloucester was playing with only 14 men didn't seem to bother them. Their pack of forwards pushed on without Eustace and within a few minutes flyhalf Ludovic Mercier levelled the points with an easy penalty. <1>
While Mercier slotted the penalty, England and London Wasp flanker Joe Worsley hobbled off clutching his hamstring. His replacement was Peter Scrivener.
Gloucester continued to attack, a loose ball from a scrum made its way down the backline and into the hands of centre Terry Fanolua, who easily raced away to score the first try of the game. Mercier converted and Gloucester took a 3-10 lead.
The game also marks a Zurich Premiership debut for Ayoola Erinle. The big centre made some impressive runs at the Gloucester defence, but after a heavy blow to the face, which needed treatment in the blood bin, New Zealander Mark Van Gisbergen replaced him. No sooner had Van Gisbergen come onto the field, that he was on the scoreboard. A wonderful backline movement resulted in him diving into the corner and scoring the home side's first try. King missed the conversion and London Wasps closed the gap to 8-10. Erinle returned to the field soon after.
After the half hour mark, London Wasps were rewarded another penalty, King missed and Gloucester were fortunate to still be in front at this stage. London Wasps pressed on and put even more pressure on Gloucester. To their credit, they did not buckle and escaped a certain try when referee Williams penalised London Wasps for holding onto the ball in a tackle. Gloucester still led 8-10.
The whistle went for half time and both sides jogged off into the change rooms except flyhalf Alex King. His motionless body lay sprawled across the 22-meter line. A heavy blow to the head saw him knocked out. He was stretched off and taken to a local hospital, but what was becoming apparent, was that King was targeted by Gloucester, as the danger man.
The second half got under way with Van Gisbergen at flyhalf and with only a few minutes into it, London Wasps were rewarded a penalty. Kenny Logan stepped up and from 30m out put the ball between the uprights. The lead changed with the home side now leading 11-10. A lead that would see London Wasps not surrender.
On 46 minutes, a ruck saw scrumhalf Rob Howley put fullback Josh Lewsey into open space. Lewsey had just centre Robert Todd to beat, and did, and he was in for his sixth try of the Zurich Premiership season. Logan converted and the lead opened up to 18-10.
Captain Lawrence Dallaglio was given a yellow card after 52 minutes. It seemed that Dallaglio was questioning referee's Williams's decisions on penalising Craig Dowd for coming in from the wrong side and was harshly sin binned. Mercier slotted the resulting penalty and closed the gap to 18-13.
With Dallaglio in the sin bin, Warren Gatland substituted Phil Greening for big Samoan Trevor Leota. Leota came on like a charging bull and made immediate impact amongst the rucks and mauls. London Wasps pressed on in the absence of their captain and nearly scored when lock Simon Shaw knocked-on near the Gloucester tryline. Dallaglio's return saw the end of Gloucester's flyhalf Mercier. Mercier was helped off with him holding his shoulder. Both sides were now without their regular No.10's
Fullback Henry Paul took over kicking duties from Mercier but missed his first penalty attempt, and with ten minutes to play the game could still have being won by either side.
It was nail biting stuff for the crowd of over 8500. The game needed something special and that something special came in the form of Mark Van Gisbergen. <2>
Gloucester targeted King and got their man, but the Cherry and Whites forgot about his replacement Van Gisbergen.
The smallish New Zealander caused havoc amongst the Gloucester defensive lines. A scrum which saw Scrivener pick up, dummy to Howley, and lay off to Van Gisbergen, resulted in him evading three tackles, recycling the ball to the forwards for lock Simon Shaw to score. A great piece phase of play from London Wasps and in particular Van Gisbergen. King missed the conversion and with only eight minutes left The Men in Black lead 23-13.
The last few minutes of the game saw locks Mark Cornwell and Simon Shaw sent off by referee Williams. Gloucester refused to give up and an injury-time penalty saw the Cherry and Whites push for a try, instead of an easy three points to ensure a bonus point. The try did not come but another penalty did and Gloucester gave up on the win, but secured a bonus point for losing within seven points. Paul put the ball between the uprights and closed the gap to 23-16.
It was truly a battle for both sides and in the end it was London Wasps who maintained their remarkable home record win.
The win moves London Wasps up the table to 22 points, although still four behind Gloucester who have 26.
It was a game that London Wasps needed to win, for a whole host of reasons, and thankfully they did.