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Gloucester closing on key moment

By Charlie Henderson

Rory Lawson slides over to score against Bath
Gloucester have had plenty of reason to celebrate over recent weeks

Former centre Leon Lloyd says Gloucester have to show the mental fortitude to match their talent.

The Cherry and Whites are on top of the Premiership table but doubts dog a team dubbed as big-match chokers.

"They are tagged with being a team full of potential but they must learn from previous finals and disappointments," Lloyd told BBC Sport.

"I've been in that situation. It's all about turning the corner, but once you turn the corner you build self-belief."

That corner is homing into view fast.

In the last month Gloucester have bounced back from being knocked out of the Heineken Cup by playing and prospering against four of their five nearest domestic rivals.

Their return from that daunting run reads: P4; W3; L1; 14pts

And it is no surprise that spirits are high with the club five points clear at the top of the table, particularly off the back of completing a first league double over fierce rivals Bath.

Brown aims to celebrate landmark in style

"Our form's improved in the last few weeks and we're beginning to get some confidence," lock Alex Brown told BBC Points West.

"We're going places as a pack and we're really starting to believe that we're a force to contend with."

But Brown, who will make his 150th appearance for the club this weekend, soon slipped into talking about "previous years" and the times Gloucester have "faltered".

Leicester, who are the fifth of those nearest rivals and lie in wait this weekend, can do that to Gloucester.

The Tigers have preyed on Gloucester frailties over the last two years. They are the destroyer of dreams; the architect of those "disappointments" Lloyd speaks of.

In each of the last two Premiership play-off campaigns the Cherry and Whites have found Leicester lying in wait and been picked off by them which is why this weekend they are the litmus test of Gloucester's burgeoning self-belief.

And Lloyd has been here before. The former Leicester and England centre swapped clubs in 2007 and was sure the return to his former stamping ground later that year in October was Gloucester's "corner".

7 Sept 2008 - Premiership
Gloucester 8-20 Leicester
18 May 2008 - Premiership s-final
Gloucester 25-26 Leicester
9 Feb 2008 - Premiership
Gloucester 13-20 Leicester
6 Oct 07Premiership
Leicester 17-30 Gloucester
12 May 2007 - Premiership final
Gloucester 16-44 Leicester

"We won at Welford Road and I thought that was the turning point and the Leicester bogey was off the back, but it didn't prove to be," he remembers.

At the end of the season, Leicester willed themselves into the play-offs as the fourth-best team and were waiting there to ensnare table-topping Gloucester when the bell rung for knockout rugby in the play-offs.

But Lloyd, who does not question Gloucester's ability, just their resolve, believes change is in the air and says that for proof that fortune can and does change the visitors need look no further than their hosts this weekend.

In his Leicester days Lloyd, who was forced to retire last year with a knee injury, went through the same growing pains that Gloucester have endured and watched the club come out the other side.

"We lost a lot of big matches, mainly to Wasps, who are the masters at knockout rugby," added the 31-year-old.

"Their system is brilliant and I think that's because in the early days they had Shaun Edwards and he was used to having played knockout rugby in Super League with Wigan, whereas it was a new concept for rugby union.

"It took us a long time to get it, but once Craig White arrived at Leicester from Wasps as our fitness coach he tailored the training and focused on knockout rugby and that was a massive turning point.

"Gloucester, week-in, week-out, play possibly the best rugby in the Premiership.

"You expect them to be there or thereabouts and the boys expect to be sat at the top of the league for the majority of the season.

"But the big ask now is to see if they can go that one step further and play knockout rugby as that's where they've fallen before.

"It's nothing to do with skill levels, it's a mentality thing."

And mental strength is something Leicester are renowned for.

Their iron resolve earned them a play-off spot last year and they have also hit a rich vein of form despite the recent loss of boss Henyeke Meyer and a host of players on international duty.

"In years gone by if you lost your half-backs like they have with Harry Ellis and Toby Flood you'd think the results would go against you," Lloyd reasoned.

"But Julien Dupuy has been playing really well and Sam Vesty has stepped up as well and has made a big difference.

"They've scored 12 tries in the last three games, Aaron Mauger's found some form and had his best game in a Leicester shirt against London Irish and Alex Tuilagi - Gloucester's nemesis - is back. They look like a tighter unit at the moment.

"They were awesome against Irish and this week's a big test for Richard Cockerill as the acting director of rugby.

"If the boys are playing well you don't change things - if it's not broke don't fix it - and it's not broken at the moment."

Charlie Henderson

With form like that Lloyd expects Leicester to be firmly in the play-off mix come the end of the season, which adds extra piquancy to Saturday's game which could be a dress rehearsal for another knockout confrontation.

He said: "A lot of teams are chucking their hat in the ring.

"Gloucester will definitely be in the top four and nobody would bet against Leicester.

"Last year they were two minutes away from finishing seventh and they scored a miracle try against Quins which took them to fourth.

"It could be the same again and it would be great for Gloucester, although the boys might not admit to it, because they could finally get rid of the ghost of Leicester Tigers.

"There's always going to be that doubt in the back of their minds that they can turn them over in a big game."

Success this weekend could go a long way to helping Gloucester's self-belief should that big game materialise in May.

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