Ollie Thorley’s four tries will demand the attention of the England head coach Eddie Jones but of greater relevance to him ahead of the conclusion to the Six Nations and the autumn campaign was the impact made from the bench by the Leicester half-backs George Ford and Ben Youngs, who turned what threatened to be one of the club’s heaviest Premiership defeats into a close contest that was settled six minutes from time.
Thorley’s tries came inside 21 first-half minutes as Leicester’s young back division struggled to cope with Danny Cipriani’s ability to delay his passes to bring runners into play whether as receivers or decoys.
It was a training run at times for the home side and Leicester were forced to bring on Ford both as part of a defensive reorganisation and to start playing in the right areas.
Their heaviest league defeat here was 34-6 in 1999 and it was 36-6 after 33 minutes this time. Away sides have enjoyed more success since the restart with matches played in empty grounds and Gloucester had shed more tears than most at the absence of fans. The terrace from where insults are hurled at visiting players was draped with advertising banners, one of which advised readers to drive their ambition.
The goal for Gloucester amounts to a place in next season’s European Champions Cup after another campaign that too often has been about the lowest common denominator, moments of brilliance eclipsed by a lack of concentration and basic errors, a failing it will take their new head coach George Skivington more than a few weeks to repair.
They were at their swaggering best in the first half after Zack Henry gave Leicester an early lead with a penalty. Joe Simpson scored their first try, supporting Chris Harris, who broke the line too easily, and it was quickly followed by Thorley’s first after Jonny May’s incursion into midfield and Billy Twelvetrees’s dummy run flummoxed the defence.
Henry’s second penalty reversed the flow, but not for long. Thorley’s second came after he came off his wing and waited for Cipriani to open the defence by delaying his pass until the final moment, and his hat-trick, and bonus point try, was created by Jason Woodward, whose chip to the line exposed an overstretched defence.
Thorley’s fourth was the most eye-catching. He received the ball on his own 10-metre line with his opposite number Jordan Olowofela lured off his wing by his uncertainty over whether Woodward would run or pass. It gave Thorley time to get into a gallop and when he confronted Henry in Leicester’s 22 he barely felt the impact as he made it to the line without interrupting his stride.
Leicester’s head coach, Steve Borthwick, summoned Ford and, at the interval, Youngs and the powerful No 8 Jordan Taufua. The match turned as the Tigers scored 24 unanswered points. Harry Potter finished Henry’s break five minutes before the interval and with Youngs and Ford dictating the tempo after it, forcing penalties from the home side and exerting pressure.
Tries from Taufua and another forward replacement, Cameron Henderson, both of whom ploughed through the less bulky Twelvetrees, were followed by a Ford penalty after Jake Polledri infringed at a breakdown. Leicester were only six points behind and Gloucester, who had lost Cipriani to a knee injury, were slipping to an ignominious defeat
They cleared their heads just in time, driving around the fringes and accumulating penalties. Twelvetrees kicked one to give them a cushion and then Lloyd Evans, Cipriani’s replacement, glided through a tired defence to seal victory and consolidate their hold on eighth place.
Leicester may have left empty handed, but they could take the most from the game.
“We gave Gloucester a lot of respect and were staring down the barrel of a massive defeat,” said Geordan Murphy, Leicester’s director of rugby. “Then we started to play and caused them problems to the point where the game was in the balance near the end.”