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The first weekend of this season’s Heinken Cup has produced some gripping matches, vindication – if it was needed – that keeping all the nations involved in the format next season has to be the right call. How those with the power get to that position is easier said than done, but seven games decided by less than seven points, and a few surprises along the way, was a ringing endorsement for a concept that started in 1996.

Apart from the 1998-99 season when English teams did not take part, european games have been part of Gloucester Rugby’s diet throughout that period. From Colomiers to Connacht, and from Treviso to Toulouse, there have been some memorable encounters, and digging their way out of a tight corner against Perpirnan on Saturday evening could be of considerable value to their season as a whole.

The pace of May, the versatility of Twelvetrees in deputising for Burns at fly half, and the stickability within a pack which has drawn a lot of criticism spoke volumes for their spirit, something they will need in bucket loads again next weekend.

Munster’s defeat to Edinburgh at Murrayfield was one of the eye catching results of the weekend, and after it the Scotland scrum half Greg Laidlaw said he wouldn’t fancy playing the Irish side next. That honour falls to Gloucester who, in Pool 6, have three teams they have faced before in various Heineken Cup campaigns.

I have been fortunate enough to watch them at all three grounds and January 18th 2003 will come back into the minds of many supporters next weekend, as it will for the two current Gloucester players, Andy Hazell and James Simpson-Daniel.

This was, of course, the date of the “miracle match” against Munster – ultimately a piece of sporting theatre that will go down in rugby folklore. It was the first season Gloucester had faced an Irish team in the Heineken Cup, and some pundits, from my recollection, said they were past their best. At that stage, however, they had never lost a fixture in the competition at Thomond Park.

The match order in the pool stages sent Munster to Kingsholm first, and Gloucester to Limerick last. Gloucester had won the home game with a bonus point on a sunny October afternoon. All seemed rosy after a 12 try romp in Italy against Viadana and, as on Saturday,a home victory over Perpignan.

The French, however, exacted revenge on their own ground, and had to play Viadana last – surely a banker victory. For Munster to edge Gloucester out and qualify for the knockout stages, the maths were improbable. Win, score four tries and overturn a big points difference. Anyone predicting this would be taken away by the men in white coats.

Little did I know just how much the 16th man – the crowd – would inspire the Munster team. Surveying the ground empty, it was a spartan venue, with three sides open to the elements. The transformation when full was astonishing. Andy Deacon confessed after the match that he’d never heard anything like it in his career. Moreover, this apparently ageing team – built around the likes of skipper Jim Williams in the back row, and Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara at half back, never panicked.

Every time you felt Munster were running out of steam, they manufactured a try. The first three were evenly spread, leaving them the final quarter to find the fourth. At that point, the momentum was so great you couldn’t see them “butchering” the position, and, as history tells us, their relentless pressure created the crucial score for wing Kelly in the last minute.

Since that famous occasion, Gloucester have faced Munster in the group stages in 2003-4 and again in a quarter final at Kingsholm in 2007-8, when Munster won 16-3. Thomond Park has also been extensively rebuilt with a capacity now in excess of 25,000, rather than the 14,000 that sounded like so many more a decade ago. ,

Notionally, Gloucester are the “minnows” in Pool 6 group because of their chequered history in the Heineken Cup. Two home wins so far means there is no advantage yet to anyone, and form would suggest that status quo would be maintained after the second round of games – unless, of couse, Gloucester can
produce a “miracle match” performance of their own.

Photograph : Copyright http://www.youtube.com

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