Gloucester Rugby: Problems to iron-out before a crucial curtain call
A DRESS rehearsal full of understudies manfully trying to steal the stage.
All mastered the emotional range but struggled with their technical craft.
Every Premiership coach will tell you they always focus on their own house first.
But after this LV=Cup defeat, Gloucester now have several crucial cast-iron performance notes on Northampton.
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The Cherry and Whites will return to Franklin's Gardens for the main event in two weeks, with most of their big draws in tow.
While Gloucester could afford to rest key men and blood young talent, Northampton were desperate to avenge their premature exit from all European competition.
The more powerful Saints were quite comfortable with a typecast turn, and battling Gloucester could not keep pace.
Two attacks straight from the Jim Mallinder go-to play book caused the Cherry and Whites untold troubles.
Come the Premiership re-run Nigel Davies' men must find ways to shut down both.
Luther Burrell's late first-half try owed everything to a fine piece of misdirection from the ever-enigmatic Ryan Lamb.
On first inspection the former Gloucester out-half seemed to conjure the score almost in isolation, sending the entire Kingsholm backline one way and crucially inside centre Burrell the other, with ball in hand, crashing over the whitewash.
But as time lapsed the ploy nagged – it felt familiar, and that's because it is.
However stunning on the day, this was a regulation Northampton move that has paid handsome dividend in the past.
Letting Burrell slip was perhaps Gloucester's one defensive aberration in the backline for the clash, but it proved particularly costly.
Saints will try the move again on February 9 no doubt, and Gloucester must be better prepared. Another classic Northampton tour de force also caused mayhem for the visitors.
Saints' powerful catch-and-drive is one of their chief weapons and it is even effective when they choose not to use it.
Chris Ashton plundered a hatful of tries striking through the fly-half channel off the tail of lineouts in opposition territory.
But while the England wing has long since departed for 'something special' at Saracens, he has not taken that attack with him.
It was never trademark Ashton – more copyright Northampton.
The Saints throw to the tail of a full lineout and land as though to set a driving maul.
But at the last they shift the ball to an onrushing speed man in the ten channel.
The opposition openside flanker can neither stick nor twist – if he breaks from the line early, Northampton will set the maul, leaving the home side a man light at the drive.
If the seven stays put, to defend the anticipated maul, the Saints employ that pacy strike-runner, hitting the line at full tilt.
Stephen Myler was the chief beneficiary at the weekend, cutting that line when usually that job falls to the blindside wing.
The Saints failed to score the craved try, but it was a massive warning shot to Gloucester.
Now the Cherry and Whites know exactly what they have to do to win at Saints in two weeks, and it all centres around the scrum.
This was a big chance for Dario Chistolini, but the luckless 24-year-old had a wretched afternoon.
He could not contain Alex Waller in the scrum, and was forced into the tighthead prop's last resort of binding on the loosehead's arm.
Chistolini rejected a battle he knew he would lose, and Gloucester struggled as a whole at the scrum against Northampton's more experienced tight five.
The South African-born Italy A cap is out of contract at the end of the season, and could be running out of chances to secure a new deal.
New recruit Lua Lokotui showed up well early on, and Andy Hazell was sharp as a tack on his first game back after that 14-week ban.
Ryan Mills' return from long-term knee injury was encouraging, while Tim Molenaar and Shane Monahan produced several telling breaks.
Lamb opened the scoring with two penalties as Saints' set-piece dominance pegged Gloucester into their own half from the off.
Martyn Thomas' delayed pass allowed wing Monahan to take an outside line out of his half, to set the Cherry and Whites away.
Fly-half Mills thought about firing out a wide pass, then remembered Lamb was his opposite number and bulldozed straight over him for Gloucester's score.
The Saints were still in control, though, and former Leeds centre Burrell capitalised on Lamb's misdirection to stroll home.
Saints picked up where they left off after the restart, with Stephen Myler slotting two penalties to stretch the home lead.
Mills almost shaved a post with a penalty – the wrong side sadly – and after that Gloucester were only able to counter-attack in fits and starts.
Saints botched several half-chances by continually bungling the final pass.
But then a lineout drive undid the Kingsholm men.
The maul broke down just shy of the Gloucester whitewash, and Waller nipped round the ruck to finish the contest.
So the slender LV=Cup hopes are over, and Gloucester purposely protected their hand ahead of their Premiership Franklin's Gardens return.
When the posturing is over after the Bath clash, the Cherry and Whites must take their game to the next level to realise their league ambitions.
NORTHAMPTON: B Foden, J Wilson, G Pisi, L Burrell (T Collins, 68), T May, R Lamb (S Myler, 54), M Roberts (L Dickson, 54), A Waller (E Waller, 74), M Haywood (R McMillan, 74), T Mercey (S Tonga'uiha, 60), M Sorenson (B Nutley, 66), C Day, S Manoa (J Craig, 66), P Dowson (capt), R Oakley.
REFEREE: Luke Pearce (RFU).