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Some of my friends are perennial sale shoppers. Particularly after Christmas, they’ll trawl outlets for bargains with varying degrees of success. There’s no doubt you feel good if you can do a deal or two. Some of Gloucester Rugby’s more modest recruits are about to have the biggest test of their Kingsholm careers in what remains of the season.

Gloucester have been in the top half of the Aviva Premiership virtually all season, largely due to the boot of Freddie Burns and a deep running spirit that has seen them secure a clutch of points late in games, notably at home to Exeter, Worcester and London Welsh.

The chance of a place in the end of season play-offs looked live until Friday night’s debacle at the Salford City Stadium against the Sharks. Now, suddenly, the table has split, after a weekend when all the top four teams won. It’s all about Heineken Cup qualification, and it no longer looks as secure as previously.

Gloucester have already announced nine players with new contracts for next season, so Director of Rugby Nigel Davies clearly has faith in the group. He said publicly that it would be one more year before there was need for major changes, when the bell may well toll for Hazell, James, and, possibly in playing terms, for Tindall, who is widely expected to join those who have re-signed. All three are currently fit, which is just as well, because several regulars are not.

Scrum half Cowan and prop Harden are out for the season. Huia Edmonds’ knee ligament injury at Sale could see him ruled out too, and lock Hamilton (injury) and hooker Dawidiuk (suspension) won’t be available next Saturday.The scrum has been creaking, so the possible return of wing Simpson-Daniel will be of limited value without a base to work from.

Gloucester have conceded more than 70 points in their last two matches so it’s a real test of mettle for the likes of Cook, Chistolini and Kalamafoni – all recruited from outside the Premiership – and youngsters Robson and Britton.

Heineken Cup qualification goes down to 6th in the Premiership. The top four look secure, but four teams still have a chance of the remaining two spots. Gloucester have the most points, but they are not necessarily the favourites.

Their final home game is against league leaders Saracens, a ruthlessly efficient team with a mean defence. They’ll hope home advantage can inspire them because their last game is away at Exeter, one of their rivals for those two coveted places. At least by that stage, Hamilton and Dawidiuk should be available to add some extra ballast among the forwards, and it could be all hands to the pump by then.

The Chiefs’ remaining away game is at Wasps, who are also in the mix, while Bath look the outsiders with Leicester and finally Saracens to play. Gloucester’s nightmare scenario would be for Saracens to justify their status at Kingsholm and then Wasps beat Exeter. If would leave at least three teams going into the final day of the season with a genuine chance of a top six place, but even my elementary maths says there isn’t room in there for everyone. Wasps last game is at Sale, who are now safe.

The Sharks’ determination to secure their Premiership status was too much for Gloucester on Friday night. It prompted Davies to admit his team deserved what they got, which was nothing. Even given his normally calm exterior, Davies will be concerned that matters are in danger of unravelling in front of his eyes at a time when he has little chance to do much about it. His hope will be that there is enough credit in the bank to get Gloucester to 5 o’clock on May the 4th with something to spare. Gloucester won’t want another season away from Europe’s top competition.

Photograph: Copyright http://www.gloucesterrugby.co.uk

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