GLOUCESTER beat Bristol 21-0 yesterday to book their place in the Powergen Cup semi-finals, but only after a derby dogfight in miserable conditions at Kingsholm. National League One leaders Bristol made Gloucester scrap every inch of the way, suggesting they are ready for a Zurich Premiership return next season. Ultimately, the combined influence of England international Andy Gomarsall and Henry Paul saw Gloucester home.
Paul kicked three first-half penalties and converted scrum-half Gomarsall’s 47th-minute try, a classic poacher’s effort after he pounced on stray Bristol possession to dive over from close range. Gomarsall also created the clinching score, kicking over the Bristol defence for former Shogun lock Alex Brown to gather a kind bounce and touch down.
A groggy Gomarsall was also in the wars, though, going off for treatment before returning to the action and then departing permanently just a few minutes from time. There did not appear to be any obvious injury concern, but England head coach Andy Robinson is in a position to take nothing for granted, given his recent run of ill luck which has ruled out the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Martin Corry for next month’s RBS Six Nations Championship opener.
Bristol never seriously threatened to score a try, but their fitness levels were of Premiership standard and their forwards freely mixed it with the Gloucester pack, despite a gluepot pitch and driving rain.
Shoguns No.8 Jim Brownrigg was named man of the match in a hard-working display from the visitors.
Gloucester just needed to get their show back on the road following a miserable display which saw them crash out of the Heineken Cup against French Champions Stade Francais six days ago. It was not pretty in front of a capacity 13,000 crowd, but Gloucester are just two wins away from lifting the Powergen Cup for a second time in three seasons, which brings automatic Heineken Cup qualification next term.
The heavens opened before kick-off, so the game was never going to be a free-flowing spectacle - and Gloucester were indebted to Paul kicking three penalties in the first half-hour.
Bristol came out with all guns blazing; yet Gloucester contained their opponents, and Paul’s accuracy gave them a comfortable lead. When Gomarsall struck in the second period it looked as though the floodgates might open - but Bristol dug deep to stop Gloucester scoring until ten minutes from time.
In the other semi-final, front-row forwards Mike Shelley and Mark Regan shared the glory as Leeds dumped Northampton out of the Cup at Franklin’s Gardens. Shelley scored his first try for four years and former England hooker Regan’s opportunist effort after the break clinched a superb win for the Tykes with Gordon Ross adding 14 points with the boot.
Northampton produced a second-half comeback after trailing 24-6 early in the second half and Ben Cohen took the opportunity to impress watching England coach Andy Robinson in attack and defence.
But any chance of a win ended with replacement scrum-half Mark Robinson sent off for stamping on Regan’s face 13 minutes from time.
Ultimately, though, Saints were made to pay for their failure to control the ball at the breakdown and were troubled all day in the lineout by a more streetwise Tykes pack.
Wing Wylie Human gave them some hope with his opportunist try but all the Saints could manage after that was a conversion and four penalties from Shane Drahm.
Leeds, who have never won the cup, go into the hat for tomorrow’s semi-final draw with Bath, Gloucester and Saracens or London Irish, who meet at Vicarage Road today.
Northampton were short of a handful of key players, with skipper Steve Thompson, Tom Smith and Corne Krige all missing, while Leeds had arguably their strongest side of season as Iain Balshaw started his first game since December.
The Tykes settled fastest with fly-half Ross drilling over three penalties and a drop-goal in the first 17 minutes. Drahm replied with two penalties of his own but despite the attacking threat of Cohen and Bruce Reihana the Saints were struggling.
They were lucky to escape when Cohen had to dive in to stop Diego Albanese scoring in the corner after Balshaw and Scott Morgan’s handling set him free down the left.
And after Chris Budgen and Grant Seely combined to mess up a good scoring chance on the half-hour, Leeds hustled their way downfield to deliver a decisive blow.
Darren Fox was sin-binned by referee Chris White for stopping one drive for the line, only for Leeds to go again with loose-head Shelley driven over for his first score since the 2001-02 season.
Northampton coach Budge Pountney took the drastic step of replacing scrum-half Jonny Howard with Robinson before the break but things got worse immediately after the interval. Cohen could not hold a wild pass in his own 22 and Leeds immediately re-gathered with Regan romping over and Ross’ conversion leaving Northampton trailing by 18 points.
The Saints needed a quick score to have a chance and got one with 30 minutes to go when Human chased his own chip and beat Albanese to the line with the TV replay needed confirm he had grounded the ball correctly.
Drahm added a superb conversion from the touchline and then stroked over a penalty on the hour to give his side a chance of getting out of jail.
Instead they were reduced to 14 men within minutes after Robinson took the law into his own hands when Regan was caught round the wrong side of a ruck and the TV replay showed the scrum-half’s boot clearly connecting with Regan’s head.
Drahm landed a fourth penalty to bring his side back to within five points and set up a frantic last five minutes but despite the best efforts of Cohen and Reihana the struggling Saints could not find a way through.
Jonny Vaughton’s two tries saw Cardiff Blues put pressure on the Celtic League’s leading three as they edged Connacht 18-8 at the Sportsground in Galway. Right wing Vaughton - who turned 23 on Friday - touched down in either half as Connacht’s jinx of not having beaten the Blues since August 2001 continued.
Fly-half Nick Macleod sealed the win for Dai Young’s side - their second in six days, following an eight-game losing streak - with two second half penalties, after Connacht had hit the front through centre James Downey’s first-minute try.
Controversy then reigned as Cardiff flanker Nathan Thomas was allowed to boot Paul Warwick’s conversion off its tee. Scottish referee Malcolm Changleng had adjudged that 24-year-old Warwick had begun his run-up despite still being in a crouched position.
The Welsh were back level on 14 minutes as skipper Tom Shanklin’s midfield break put Vaughton over in the right corner.
Then Macleod saw another kick screw wide before Conor McPhillips’ injury-time hand trip saw Shanklin kept out.
Dean Dewdney’s sin-binning for preventing a quick release turned the tie in the home side’s favour, and Warwick obliged for an 8-5 break lead with his second attempt in added time.
Both kickers missed a series of penalty shots in the second half, but Macleod did send over two on 55 and 73 minutes, sandwiching Vaughton’s clever 69th-minute kick through and collect try under the posts, to earn Cardiff’s first win on Irish soil since last March.