The final phase of a long and draining season starts here and Gloucester will hope there are still a minimum of seven games remaining, four in the Premiership and three, including tonight’s match against Connacht, in the Challenge Cup. With a home draw for the victors in the semi finals, both tea ms will feel a place in the final on May 1st at the Stoop is well within range. It is then that the plot thickens.

Gloucester’s defeat at Sale last Sunday has left them well adrift of Champions Cup qualification through their league position, and the selection at the AJ Bell Stadium suggested this evening’s game was seen as more important. Why ? Not only because it is the shortest route to any silverware, but also because by winning the Challenge Cup, Gloucester would put themselves into a two stage play off for a Champions Cup place next season, where they would have to beat a side from the Pro 12 and a side from the French Top 14.

It could mean they are still playing meaningful matches at the end of May, with a considerable carrot on the end of the last one. That, though, is rather putting the cart before the horse, and Connacht must be respected. They’ve played here before, and so know what Kingsholm is about. It promises to be close, just as it was 24 years ago when Ireland’s national side paid one of only two visits here.

The year was 1991 – as this year, a World Cup year. It was also the centenary of rugby on Kingsholm. To mark the event, Gloucester played two celebration matches against England (which they lost), and Ireland, who they beat 14-13 with tries by Jerry Perrins and Simon Morris, and two penalties from Tim Smith. Matt Bayliss, still a familiar figure locally, was the referee.

“I had been asked by Gloucester to take charge of the England game the weekend before. The RFU then stepped in and said Fred Howard needed to do a big game before the World Cup and that they would appoint him and in any case, you can’t have a Gloucestershire referee doing a game between Gloucester and England ! I was only on standby for the World Cup so that was that. Peter Ford then invited me to do the Ireland game instead, which was an honour for me. I remember some sections of the press saying I was from Highnam. What they didn’t say was that was four miles from Gloucester !”

The Ireland team included some seasoned internationals – Jim Staples at full back, wing Simon Geoghegan on the wing, Brendan Mullin at centre, and in the pack the likes of Nick Popplewell, Donal Lenihan and Philip Matthews. Those were the days when replacements were only used when a player was injured, so a youthful Andy Deacon (26) was named on the bench, and stayed there throughout the 80 minutes.

“My abiding memory is that it was nice to be involved in such an unusual fixture for an international side to play a club side. Ireland did use their squad but to get the victory was very sweet and it showed the strength of Gloucester at the time. World Cup preparations were very different then for international teams. To think in 1991 we played both England and Ireland, and this year England and Ireland play each other.”

Tonight’s game is only the third meeting in Europe between Gloucester and Connacht. In the Heineken Cup pool stages in 2011-12, Gloucester won home and away but both matches were tight, the encounter here being decided by a 77th minute from Jonny May, who had come on as a replacement. Fast forward to 2015, and only May, Charlie Sharples and Dan Murphy might be involved tonight, while seven of the Connacht squad are still with the club.

Glancing at their form across the season it’s clear coach Pat Lam has forged a spirited group. Although
Connacht have qualified as the bottom seeds, they did win away in La Rochelle with a bonus point to
make the quarter finals after a victory at Bayonne earlier the tournament. In the Pro 12, Connacht have beaten Edinburgh, Treviso and the Dragons on their travels, and while Munster scored 40 points
against them last Saturday, at half time it was 7-3. Don’t expect them to go quietly.

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


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