Dave Ellis' weekly update looks at the weekend's Heineken Cup action and the closing weeks of the season for Gloucester.
Dave Ellis - Weekly Update
Now the Six Nations competition has reached it's ultimate conclusion, the focus changes to the European and domestic competitions this weekend. This is the business end of the season and the teams who are able to sustain good form in this period can reap the rewards by collecting coveted silverware.
Wasps illustrated this last season with their exceptional double. They began the season in average form by their standards, built impetus mid season and finished at their peak.
The English teams remaining in the Heineken Cup appear to be struggling and I believe will find it tough this weekend. Northampton travel to Toulouse who annihilated Brive 71-3 on Saturday, a bear pit of a place to play and you would have to fancy the French side to progress to the semi finals.
Newcastle visit Stade Francais and I have already had several conversations with my good friend Fabien Galthie - picking my brains about the north east side. It might not be such the forgone conclusion as some pundits are predicting, as Stade start the game with the memory of a 41-3 flogging last weekend at the hands of Biarritz Olympique.
Leicester, the English team with probably the best opportunity, play Leinster at Lansdowne Road. Unfortunately the Tigers appear to have peaked a little too early and their form appears shaky as the defeat against Leeds showed.
Although Munster will be no pushover it will be even more difficult without the trusty boot of Ronan O'Gara and again I would expect the Basque team to make the final four.
Looking at the current form of the challengers, I believe the eventual winners of the competition will be either Biarritz or Toulouse. Both are in great form and stand second and third respectively in the Top 16 in France.
With only three remaining fixtures Gloucester have an outside chance of making the top three. We entertain Leeds, week after next at Kingsholm and must aim to gain a bonus point against the Tykes. That would leave us well positioned to scrap it out with Sale away and finally Saracens at home. It's important to finish the season well, and as far up the table as possible in order to gain a 'wild card' position for next year's European Cup qualification.
Last weekend's victory away at London Irish was extremely important and will undoubtedly build the team's confidence. I was generally pleased with our defensive work; despite being a little undisciplined in the first half by conceding four kickable penalties. The hit by Seti Kiole on Geoff Appleford was worth the entrance fee alone!
Our young half back partnership in Brad Davies at fly half and Alex Page at scrum half worked effectively, and with our more experienced players out with long term injuries, it gives these two players a real opportunity to stake a claim for more regular appearances.
Gloucester have an extremely youthful squad with players such as Andy Hazell, Alex Brown, Adam Balding, Adam Eustace, James Forrester, Terry Sigley, Nick Wood, Jon Goodridge, Marcel Garvey and James Simpson-Daniel all in their early to mid twenties.
In addition, half back Ryan Lamb has been outstanding for England Under 18s, James Merriman is skipper of the Welsh juniors and Olly Morgan's selection at England Under 21 level is proof of him developing into an accomplished player.
Unfortunately this season many of our more influential performers such as Phil Vickery, Olivier Azam and Duncan McRae have been out with injury. The blend of youth and experience in the team has been missing and the recruitment of individual's the calibre of Mike Tindall along with this healthy trio will make us much more competitive.
Mefin Davies has been an excellent acquisition by the club and I am delighted we have secured his services on a new two-year contract. His season more than anything illustrate what an unpredictable game we are involved in.
Following the liquidation of the Celtic Warriors, Mefin found himself unemployed, joined Neath on a semi professional basis before joining Gloucester as a response to our hooking injury crisis. As a result of some exceptional displays in the Autumn internationals and for Gloucester he found himself selected for Wales in the Six Nations, being an essential part of this year's outstanding Grand Slam team and likely to be chosen for the Lions tour. Incredible and without sounding too sickly, it couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke!
Fly-half Billy Burns was named Man of the Match after the 35-14 European Rugby Challenge Cup victory over Stade Rochelais on Thursday evening, and was full of praise for all his team mates for the win after a short turnaround.
Gloucester have been in good form in recent weeks, but Backs Coach Tim Taylor knows that the Cherry and Whites will have to be at their best on Thursday evening (kick off 7:45pm) against a Stade Rochelais side flying high this season.
Speaking to GRTV after the bonus point win over Bristol, back row Lewis Ludlow revealed that despite a tricky first half, Gloucester backed their skills to come through, a faith that was evident in a strong second half showing.
Willi Heinz scored Gloucester's second try as the Cherry and Whites overturned a disappointing first 40 minutes and 0-6 half time deficit, to earn a 26-18 Aviva Premiership victory over Bristol Rugby on Saturday.
Gloucester's much changed side had to overcome conceding an early try on Thursday evening, but responded in style to down Stade Rochelais by 35 points to 14 in the European Rugby Challenge Cup and set up a mouthwatering return fixture next weekend.
After taking 11 points from their last three games in the Aviva Premiership, including bonus point wins against Wasps and Bristol, Gloucester will be looking to continue their good form when they welcome La Rochelle to Kingsholm.