Tigers Extra Firsts triumphed 38-16 tonight in a ill tempered A League match with Gloucester at Welford Road. Tries from the returning Miles Benjamin, Henry Purdy, George Catchpole, Scott Steele, Michael Noone and a penalty try secured victory with both sides seeing red after referee Darren Gamage sent Ryan Lamb and Koree Briton for the proverbial early bath.
The match was scarred by Gloucester's negative tactics of holding players on the floor, when Tigers took exception to this the Gloucester response was to pile in with fists as well. First team forwards Huia Edmonds, Lua Lokotoi and Matt Cox were all extremely fired up and needed no excuse to start scuffles.
Referee Darren Gamage, the managing director of a Cambridge security firm, lost control from early on. He failed to spot the numerous Gloucester offences around the ruck which just emboldened them to push for more.
Tigers had already showed a different class to their opponents with the first two tries coming in the first 10 minutes. The first came from a simply beautiful break and off load by Terrence Hepetema finding the surging Miles Benjamin on the inside tracking line. Benjamin was playing his first game for over a year and was lively in the first half before tiring and being replaced around the hour mark.
Henry Purdy, last year's top try scorer and going the right way to retain that title, was next on the score sheet. Sebastian De Chaves charged down the Gloucester clearance and showed terrific work rate to secure the loose ball. Tigers whipped the turnover through the hands from the Crumbie touchline to towards Purdy on the old Members side. A simple finish for a man of his caliber, Purdy couldn't quite get it central enough for Ryan Lamb to land conversion, making it 12-0 to the Tigers.
Gloucester then started edging into the game more with a good spell of possession. Gamage now badly flailing under the pressure of the two sides tried to assert his authority with a penalty against Joe Cain for dissent. Johnny Bentley slotted it to secure Gloucester's first points.
Bentley doubled the Elver Eater's tally just 4 minutes later when play was stopped for a "high" tackle by Terrence Hepetema. This happened right in front of me and was a perfect text book tackle. He hit him in the ribs and drove him up and back.
Tigers were not to be held back for long however. Purdy was given good counter attacking ball and spotting lumbering lock forward Lua Lokotoi in the back line he turned him this way and that moving from the halfway to the 5m line. A cheeky chip through for Lamb was blocked but Gloucester infringed at the breakdown anyway. Purdy, now full of beans, fancied himself down the blindside with the quick tap and Perry Humphreys in support but the pair were bundled in to touch. Chance wasted.
The Cherry 'n' Whites lineout, from Australian Test hooker Huia Edmonds no less, was miles overthrown. First to react was quicksilver Irishman Michael Noone who scrapped it back on the Tigers side. The ball was bobbling and Ryan Lamb showed a touch of class as his quick "Fijian Flip" pass drew in the onrushing Ryan Mills and let George Catchpole wander under the posts completely unmolested.
This cheeky trickery from the exiled Gloucester native clearly ruffled a few feathers. Thankfully in my roughly 17 years watching the Tigers I can't recall another time when a fight has broken out in the queue to get through the Crumbie terrace at half time but Gloucester managed it. Gamage had let tensions simmer so high it was inevitable that it was going to boil over at some point but practically in the crowd is not a good sight, as much as I love a good punch up.
Much like Nick Mullins in the Premiership 7s I couldn't tell whether it was Steph Reynolds or Drew Cheshire that took exception to Lamb's exceptional skill but it was an ugly reaction that foreshadowed what was to come.
With no obvious talking to from the referee at halftime both sides returned from their break refreshed and fired up. Harry Thacker replaced George Chuter and Will Owen made his A league debut in place of Thomas Waldrom.
It did not take long for the match to spark, for the pot to boil over, for the Gloucester players to avoid all pretense and nakedly ambush Ryan Lamb. 5 minutes into the half, certainly no more, and Lamb put up a steepling Garryowen for the backs to chase. As all eyes followed the ball the Gloucester forwards set upon Lamb, with baby faced assassin Lewis Ludlow flying in for such a late hit the first I noticed of it was when the Crumbie reacted to all the flying fists. Ludlow and Koree Britton were both on top of Lamb with both sides certainly giving as good as they got.
The referee's 14 year old touch judge came in to report the misdemeanors. Red cards for both. I have no problem with straight reds for violence so no qualms there. But the decision to restart the game was odd.
The sequence of events seemed to be this: Lamb kicks ball, is taken late, reacts by punching Ludlow in the head, Britton piles in and as one twitterer put it "went Duncan McRae on Lamb". Now surely that should be a Tigers penalty to restart? First offence is Gloucester, without which we would have had no fight at all, then after Lamb reacts so does Britton. If we are reversing pens then surely it goes Tigers reversed to Gloucester reversed to Tigers?
But no, Gamage with the help of the not quite shaving school boy not only gave Gloucester the pen but a further 10 meters too.
Tigers reacted better to the reduction though as Scott Steele's muscular display came to the fore. This hardy carrying game makes him a very different proposition to our other scrum halfs and an interesting option ahead of the likes of Mele and Harrison.
Tigers earned a penalty from the scrum in the Gloucester 22 which Steele tapped quickly. He raced around the pack before cutting back outside, holding off the Gloucester challenge to squeeze over in the far corner. With Lamb off Steele missed the conversion.
Gloucester's night was about to get worse though as a the red cards had done nothing to remove the niggle from the game. Lua Lokotoi was chief culprit again, particularly boisterous after Balmain had smashed through him on the counter ruck. The Tigers' tales were now up and they scented blood.
With George Catchpole playing fly half we kicked to the corner. A mighty surge came on from the young pack and forwards they marched. Tongan international Lokotoi collapsed the maul inches from the line and was carded for his troubles. With Tom Bristow, Tiziano Pasquali and Tom Price now in the engine room the scrum surged forwards and as the Gloucester players were spit out the side Gamage put them out of their misery and raced under the posts for the penalty try.
Gloucester responded well with Billy Burns, younger brother of Freddie, now introduced to the fray they went quick from one of the only "holding on" penalties given all match. This length of the field breakaway whilst down to 13 men will be some consolation for the Gloucester boys.
With the benches now emptied and the villain Lokotoi returned the Gloucester scrum was not improved. A promising Tigers move was pulled back for the final pass being forward but it mattered not. A huge 8 man shove drove the Cherry 'n' White pack back at a rate of knots. With the scum now our put in a try was inevitable. This time Gloucester let Michael Noone ground it for an old fashioned push over rather than cheat and gift us the conversion. Steele nailed it anyway. 38-16.
And that was the game really.
Steele would be my Man of the Match (Man of Steele?) for his calm performance once robbed of his half back partner but as ever the likes of Purdy and Noone were impressive. Benjamin showed well in his first run but will require time to build up the fitness required for 80 minutes of Premiership rugby.