An astonishing defensive performance allied with 16 points from fly half Billy Burns secured Gloucester’s passage past Top 14 leaders La Rochelle into the Challenge Cup final.
It was every bit as courageous and as classy a performance as Saracens’ a few hours earlier. Unlike Saracens, Gloucester went in as huge underdogs against a La Rochelle team who were protecting an unbeaten home record. It was clear to see why. Their forwards were monstrous and their supporters equally ferocious. Most teams melt in this environment.
Unlike so many occasions this season, Gloucester simply would not buckle. They tackled, tackled, tackled and then tackled some more. Ross Moriarty fully underlined why he was chosen in the Lions squad with a thunderous performance in defence. That effort was replicated everywhere.
Burns proved to be the matchwinner. He kicked all his goals, unlike opposite number Brock James who missed two penalties and a drop goal. And it was James who provided the intercept for Burns to run 90 metres for Gloucester’s only try of the match in the second half.
“I’m so proud of them all,” Humphreys said. “Defence takes a plan but it also takes a lot of heart. For the amount of effort we put in, that was the best performance I have been involved in.”
Even by French standards, La Rochelle’s pack was gargantuan. France prop Uini Atonio, by far the heaviest player in the Six Nations at 24 stone, almost looked svelte compared to some other specimens. Gloucester clearly faced a considerable disadvantage at the set piece. They adapted accordingly, taking quick lineout throws wherever the possible and hooking the ball before La Rochelle could apply the squeeze at the scrum.
To start with, it proved a successful strategy as frustration mounted in the stands. Even compared to the Shed, the home support were ridiculously one-eyed, howling at referee Andrew Brace whenever an attack broke down. Brace was not winning any popularity contests when he rightly sinbinned lock Jone Qovu for cynically and dangerously dropping an elbow of his 22stone frame on a prone Wili Heinz at a ruck. It should have been red.
Burns kicked the resulting the penalty and by the time that Qovu returned he had kicked a second to give Gloucester a 6-0 lead. There were opportunities to extend that advantage. A close-range maul was shattered by La Rochelle’s defence while Henry Trinder was tackled into touch by the corner flag after he and Jeremy Thrush failed to make the most of a two-on-one.
Inevitably, La Rochelle grew into the contest and they too had a man-advantage after Tom Savage was deemed guilty of a neck roll on the excellent Botia Veivuke that had far more to do with the crowd reaction than the severity of the offence. James kicked the penalty and levelled the scores on halftime after a period of prolonged pressure and some desperate Gloucester defence.
There was no let up in the second half. Twice, Gloucester did superbly to force a maul turnover to howls of anguish from the crowd. Their anger boiled over when Trinder forced a turnover penalty inside the La Rochelle half. The message to “respecter le buteur” was summarily ignored as Burns kicked Gloucester back ahead to a deafening wall of booing.
The advantage looked like it was going to be shortlived with La Rochelle camped on the Gloucester tryline. After hammering through the forwards, they finally decided to go wide. Unfortunately, Burns read their intentions to a tee and picked off James’ long pass. There was a long way to go from his own 22, but Burns somehow found the wheels to make it under the posts.
For once there was silence in Brittany. That did not last as La Rochelle forced a scrum penalty that James kicked to bring it back to within a score. The pressure just kept building and finally the home team broke through with ten minutes remaining, replacement Damien Lagrange plunging over from close range.
James, however, missed the conversion to leave Gloucester ahead. The Australian fly half has an unfortunate history of failing to deliver in the big games with Clermont, and that reputation clings to him still as he was wide with a further drop-goal and penalty attempt.
Gloucester bodies were dropping at every break in play. Their hearts have been broken so many times in the last minute that a twist seemed inevitable. With three minutes to go they won a penalty, kicked for touch and were content to recycle the ball to wind the clock out. Yet with 20 seconds to go, they were turned over. Hearts raced into mouths, but a knock-on sparked wild celebrations among the pockets of Cherry & White support. They will now face the winners of Sunday's semi-final between Stade Francais and Bath in the final in Edinburgh.