Gloucester’s journey to the Challenge Cup final
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Gloucester Rugby and Cardiff Blues will go head-to-head in search of European glory in the Challenge Cup final on Friday, May 11.
Representing England and Premiership Rugby, Johan Ackermann's Gloucester will take confidence from their journey to the finals, playing some impressive rugby along the way that has seen them score 319 points in the competition so far.
With no shortage of drama, here’s a review of their road to Bilbao, where Gloucester will play in their third Challenge Cup final in four years.
It was a nervy start to the campaign for Johan Ackermann’s men as they faced Pau in their first Pool game.
The French were on a 13-game losing streak in the competition stretching back to the 2005/06 season, but All Black Colin Slade scored 15 of Pau’s 27 points to see them to victory.
However, a second-half resurgence from the Cherry and Whites meant they left with a crucial bonus point, as all of their 21 points came in the second half, including a try from Henry Purdy in the 81st minute.
Gloucester followed up the defeat with a comprehensive 61-16 win over Agen, putting nine tries past the French side and letting only one score in.
Two successive victories over Zebre gave Gloucester momentum, the first coming in Italy as they just about held on to finish 33-26, and the second an impressive 69-12 as Ollie Thorley crossed four times.
The return trip to Agen was successful, but in the last game of the Pool stage, Gloucester again couldn’t see off Pau which meant the French side finished top of the Pool.
Head Coach Johan Ackermann on media duties as we look forward to Friday in Bilbao— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) May 7, 2018
“We’re excited, and we have put our last two weeks behind us. We are much better than we have showed and it’s our job to put it on the big stage now” pic.twitter.com/Fkjftxr0oG
Gloucester headed to Ireland for their quarter-final encounter with Connacht, who finished top of their Pool having gone unbeaten in the process.
It was an enthralling match between the two, with both going ahead at one point. Gloucester hooker James Hanson took advantage of a loose line-out ball for the opening try of the match, only for Connacht scrumhalf Kieran Marmion to dart through the Cherry and Whites defence four minutes later to level the score.
The visitors were soon reduced to 14 men as Ben Morgan was shown a yellow card and Connacht took advantage of the extra man, with Bundee Aki muscling his way over to take the lead.
Gloucester soon levelled when Morgan was back on the pitch as a long pass reached winger Tom Marshall, who slid home in the left corner.
But it was a captivating solo effort from Henry Trinder which gave Gloucester the lead going into the break as he slipped past numerous defenders to make it 17-10.
Niyi Adeolokun got one back for the hosts after getting on the end of Kieran Marmion’s perfectly weighted grubber, but John Afoa – on his 100th appearance for Gloucester – hit back with a powerful run to dot down.
However, Connacht would not lie down and there was more drama to come as Lewis Ludlow was sent to the bin with 10 minutes to play. Winger Matt Healy got his 16th try in 16 appearances in the Challenge Cup to bring the hosts within two once again, but Connacht could not muster enough to prevent Gloucester securing their place in the semi-finals.
🎬 More of this in Bilbao please Jason... pic.twitter.com/UhxV8u8v95— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) May 7, 2018
It was an all-English affair in the first Challenge Cup semi-final as Gloucester hosted Newcastle Falcons at Kingsholm.
But the visitors got off to the perfect start as Scott Lawson was on the end of a driving maul to score against his former club just nine minutes in.
It didn’t take long for Gloucester to respond, as Jason Woodward’s electric pace sliced through the Falcons defence before he set up Marshall with an inside ball to level the score.
The hosts then made the brave decision to go for the corner instead of taking three points as the clock ticked red for half-time, and they got their just rewards as Motu Matu’u was on the back of a driving maul to touch down.
The Cherry and Whites now had a firm grip on the game and didn’t let up in the second half, relentlessly pressuring the Falcons defence with some expansive rugby that saw Billy Burns cross the whitewash.
Lawson kept a glimmer of hope alive for Dean Richards’ men as he got his second of the game in a similar fashion to his first, but Gloucester were not finished.
Ben Vellacott added the final nail in the coffin after another searing burst from Woodward and a ball inside set the replacement scrumhalf up to send Gloucester to Bilbao for a final showdown with Cardiff Blues.