By any stretch of the imagination we are not, I assume, in the position we hoped we might be when our Nige was planning things at the end of last season. I was therefore a bit surprised when I heard that he had decided that it was time for a short sabbatical from frontline coaching and that Andrew Stanley was taking over the rudder. Surprise, however, turned to excitement when I heard he was preparing a report on the term’s progress. OMG, I thought, our Nige has been summoned to explain the situation to Ryan Walkinshaw and the suits.
I can only imagine what happened:
Young Ryan: Well, our Nige, what’s going on then? Tenth we are! Tenth, I ask you. Only two wins out of eight. And that, without being too blunt about it, is the most disastrous start to any sporting campaign since Gloucestershire’s very own Eddie the Eagle’s first jump in the 1988 Winter Olympics … which wasn’t very good, to be honest – if it hadn’t have been for gravity and Newton’s first law of motion, he’d probably not have travelled any distance at all.
Our Nige: Sorry, sir. The thing is, I’ve been doing this new fangled thing called squad rotation …
Young Ryan: Squad rotation? Never heard of it. Sure you don’t mean crop rotation?
Our Nige: No, sir. Squad rotation. Rather a clever ruse where everyone gets a jolly good game, and everyone plays with everyone else and gets used to playing with each other so we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet when we’re on the rugby pitch. So to speak.
Young Ryan: Just a couple of tiny little points for you to consider, our Nige. One: while you’re rotating anything with two legs and everyone is having a jolly good time playing with each other and so forth, we just happen to be losing three out of every four matches we play. And two: I’ll have no singing of hymns in this club. On the field or off it. We run a secular club, you know. Godless is the way I like it, so there’ll be no hymns, thank you very much. Why don’t you just play the best team?
Our Nige: I don’t know what it is.
Young Ryan: What? When will you know?
Our Nige: Well, all things considered and when every player in the squad has had an equal amount of game time, I might be able to answer that question by the end of the season. Or possibly next. Is that all right?
And so, I suppose, they hit on the idea of an autumn term report as a compromise and this week that report was published. Well, I say ‘published’ but I’ll rephrase that: … this week that report was completed although not published.
But never fear; brutal it was, brutal.
An autumn term report eh? I used to dread my school reports – my mother was always so disappointed in me. I won’t go into detail but almost every subject was the same: ‘could do better’.
A few years later I found myself on the other side of the report-writing process but that was post national Curriculum and life had become more complicated for teachers. Instead of saying things like: ‘little Jimmy is a complete tosser and should start listening when I’m teaching instead farting for the benefit of his mates at the back of the class’. I had to say things like: ‘little Jimmy is an active learner and would benefit from a more focussed approach to classwork’.
Anyway, our Nige was lucky – he was able to do his own report. Self-assessment we’d call it in teaching circles.
Young Ryan: What have you got for me, our Nige?
Our Nige: You’re going to like this, sir. It’s brutal.
Young Ryan: Brutal, eh? I like the sound of that. Burning a few Christians are we – that sort of thing?
Our Nige: No, not quite sir, but listen to this: the first conclusion I’ve come to is that we’re not where we wanted to be …
Young Ryan: No shit, Sherlock!
Our Nige: … er … so we’ve looked across the whole club and challenged everybody and everything.
Young Ryan: And?
Our Nige: And the policy of squad rotation hasn’t helped the cause, sir, and so we’ll pick the strongest team from now on … I’m sure I can work that one out.
Young Ryan: And?
Our Nige: Oh yes. We’ve got a bit of a weakness in the front row, sir – due, in no small measure to red cards and injury, but don’t worry we’re going to fill the gap with a Tongan.
Young Ryan: And that’s it?
Our Nige: Pretty much, sir, yes. Brutal, isn’t it?
Or, in other words: could do better.
In an LV= Cup match at Kingsholm, while playing against Newcastle, both James Simpson-Daniel and Ryan Mills were stretchered off with serious leg injuries. Both were ferried off to London for surgery – that’s where all the big-nob surgeons hang out, evidently – and although there has been no hard information from the club (at the time of writing) both are looking at lengthy recovery times.
Ryan Mills, you might recall, is my tip to be the star of the Gloucester back line but his fledgling career has already been dogged by injury. And just when our Nige is giving him some serious game time, the flying fickle finger of fate creeps up behind him, shouts “Gotchya” and breaks his blooming leg.
Sinbad’s injury looked that much more serious, though, and I have to ask myself if this isn’t the end of Sinbad’s reign at Gloucester. He joined us as a teenager and he’s been my hero ever since. Only injury and – dare I say it? – one-eyed England management has stopped him being a national hero, as well. As much as I’d love this talismanic career to go on forever, at some stage it’ll end and this might just be it. You’ll probably remember that it was last November that he picked up the shoulder injury that kept him off the team sheet for the rest of the season and now, a year later, his body has let him down again.
I wish the two of them all the very best for a speedy recovery.
The result – a 20 points to 12 win to Gloucester – was almost completely meaningless. In the previous LV= Cup match we’d sent a lambs to the Northampton slaughterhouse to be minced up and last Saturday in the same competition and with no realistic hope, or possibly even intention, of progressing, we fielded a full strength side – or as near as dammit.
Of course there can be no criticism of the GR management. It’s just a galling coincidence that in a pointless fixture we field our strongest team and two of our most gifted players are badly injured. I would, however, love to know the selection logic of the last three matches because we mustn’t forget that sandwiched between those two games we played a full strength Gloucester team and beat a Japan XV in a crucial Nippo-Gastle Grim friendly.
And the good news?
Sione Kalamafoni is to extend his stay at Kingsholm. This guy is the back-row business – a strong and an exciting Tongan international – and to have him in the fold for the next couple of years is good news indeed. My eyes positively sparkled when I saw our Nige’s words of wisdom:
“He could have made more money elsewhere, but he wants to stay here at Gloucester. He knows the plans that we’ve put in place and believes in what we’re doing. He wants to be part of something here. I’ve said all along that there’s a huge commitment here by the board to be successful, and we have clear plans moving forward. Sione and the other recent signings will be a big part of that, and it shows our intent.”
We’ve got a plan! More than that – we’ve got plans.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that I’ve been banging on about targets, and plans and so forth. I honestly don’t know how much a rugby club is meant to divulge to its adoring public but I just feel that this particular rugby club doesn’t divulge enough. I don’t want Gloucester to publish its playbook, or anything – that would be stupid – but at the moment I’m feeling a bit left out. I would love to know what the medium- and long-term plans are.
So, at least Sione has seen the plans. And, excitingly, they are plans “moving forward” which is a real relief, I can tell you. And – here’s the cherry on the white icing – they are “clear” plans “moving forward”. Even better!
Whatever that means.
I suppose what it means is that we’ve got plans that have been explained to at least one Tongan who wants to be “part of something”. Anyway, the man from Tonga has seen the plans and he say yes. So that’s all right, then.
I suppose it could be argued that I’m asking for too much. We are just the fans, after all, and it’s our job to be loyal. And that means turning up every week to watch the rugby and wildly sing our Glawster Anthem, if we can remember the words. Then we can go home to our family and our jobs where we can jolly well stay until the next match.
A bit harsh? I’m not sure.
All things considered we got pretty excited last year. Nigel Davies took over as Director of Rugby and arrived all suntanned and confident and proceeded to sail Gloucester Rugby out of the turbulence of the Bryan Redpath era and into the relative calm of the 2012–13 season.
One way or another, we welcomed him into the Gloucester Rugby family, because that’s what we are down here, one big, happy family. Under the watchful eye of young Ryan, he quickly became the patriarchal figure of Gloucester. He was wedded unceremoniously to the fans and his coaching staff, and like a duck to water he started guiding his young players through the rough and tumble of an Aviva Premiership season.
There were disappointments, granted – show me a man who goes through life without disappointments and I’ll show you a Leicester supporter – but in the end we finished up sixth, and a top-six premiership position means we qualified for the Heineken Cup. So that’s all right, then.
The thing is, it’s all changed a bit, this season – not in a good way, either – and some members of the family, notably, the ones who pay big money every week to watch the rugby, are getting a bit tetchy. And it’s easy to see why: we’re languishing at the bottom of Pool 6 in the Heineken Cup, flapping around against the tide to keep off the rocks at the bottom of the Premiership table and our LV= situation is none too chipper, either. Relationships are bound to be strained. Even family relationships.
Team rotation and the development of Sid was the plan to begin with but there never seemed to be any continuity and we never got to identify our best team. Master plan or schoolboy error?
Then we go to Thomond Park with what looks like a second team and missed out on an opportunity to beat the Monsters at a time when they might have been wobbling a bit. Master plan or schoolboy error?
And then, to cap it all, we travel to Northampton to play the first LV= Cup match, with, if truth be told, nothing more than a Colts team: a shedload of up-and-coming academy lads, including – wait for it – two school kids. One of them, Ollie Thurley, is only seventeen years old.
Master plan or schoolboy error?
Seventeen years old, I ask you. They must make kids differently these days because when I was seventeen I spent most of my Saturday afternoons scratching my bum and picking my nose, although not with the same finger, I hasten to add. A first-team appearance was a fantastic achievement for these lads and I hope they enjoyed the experience but the last thing we needed at that particular time was another poor performance.
Which we got.
It was always going to be a very tricky match for our Nige and it must have been his lack of experience in the classroom that made him decide to offload the job onto poor old Andrew Stanley. Take it from me (Y9, bottom set French has taught me a thing or two about kids, I can tell you) going to Northampton on a coach with a bunch of toddlers is no picnic.
Handing the captaincy to Freddy Burns can’t have helped the situation any, either. Freddy, for all his skills with the ball in his hand, is not long out of short trousers himself and is hardly the father figure that some of those youngsters needed on the pitch, or on the coach, for that matter. Perhaps our Nige was being clever: put Freddy in charge and with all the toddlers looking up to him and asking him questions like ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ and ‘Where’s the toilet?’, he might mature a bit himself, which would be a very useful. Can you imagine the damage Freddy will do once he’s mature and sensible?
No. The common-sense choice of captain in a match where you need to keep control of kids who’ve had nothing but e-numbers for breakfast, should have been Will James. You don’t mess with Herman.
And so the question I ask myself is this: what are we trying to achieve? Young Ryan, is bound to have had a cosy word or two with his protégé before this season started:
‘Not a bad start to a career at Gloucester, our Nige. But what are you going to do as an encore? What’s your goal, if you don’t mind me asking? HC quarter finals? Premiership play-offs? Anglo-Welsh final? A win against Japan?’
We have to assume that there was a game plan? But you can bet your bottom Yen that the goals that young Ryan and our Nige agreed over Horlicks a few months ago are not the same as the goals they’ll be talking about over Cocoa now. It’s all changed.
My gripe is that the junior members of this family – the poor and uninformed supporters – are never told anything. I could almost accept (almost, I said) a master plan that ended: “ … and then we’ll beat Japan” if said master plan had been communicated to said supporters in some said way.
When we get to the end of the season we might be pretty chuffed at the way we’re playing at the moment. What with one thing and another, we could be in a bit of a dog fight for the one relegation spot available and these bonus points we’re picking up will be darn useful: a losing bonus point here, a losing bonus point there – they all mount up, you know. And if we’re really good – like we were last Saturday – we’ll win the occasional try bonus point, as well.
So that’s all right, then.
You’ll understand, too, that when I saw the following headline on the Gloucester Rugby website I felt a bit peeved:
GLOUCESTER RUGBY’S COMEDY NIGHT IS BACK
Surely it wasn’t that bad. Okay, we might have lost to a mid-table team at Castle Grim – known formerly and proudly as Kingsholm, although, to be fair, now beginning to take on the mantle of Nige’s Wendy House – but when it comes to the final show down with Dean Ryan and his also-rans up the M5 (oh no, not another showdown with Dean Ryan!) we’ll be bandying around those LBPs with an air of invincibility.
So there! We’ll have none of that pessimism here, thank you very much. And if we continue to amass these LBPs, I really don’t think ninth position is beyond our reach.
A few matches ago when we played against Harlequins – do you remember those halcyon days when we were fluking the occasional win? – I was surprised by the actions of one Gloucester supporter who was sitting in the JS Security Stand. You know how it goes: the public-address bloke, in a muted but polite way, says something to the tune of, ‘Will you please welcome our visitors – Harlequins.’ And there’s a ripple of applause while a few of the away supporters try to create something a bit more boisterous. It must be my upbringing, I suppose, but I always show my appreciation of the visiting team. Nothing too exuberant, mind – just a minor finger clapping to wish the opposition well.
I was a bit surprised when one particular Gloucester supporter stood up and started having an epileptic fit just as the soon-to-be-robbed Quins ran on to the pitch. ‘That’s weird,’ I thought to myself. ‘I hope he’s okay.’
I was even more surprised when the Hairy Queens trotted out for the second half of the game and the poor sod popped up again to continue his fitting. ‘That’s very weird,’ I thought to myself. But just as I was about to alert the St John Ambulance people, it began to dawn on me that this guy wasn’t having an epileptic fit at all. Believe it or not – and you’ll probably find this a bit hard to swallow – the arm waving and finger pointing were actually obscene gestures and the funny facial expressions were, I assumed, lewd comments about parentage and so forth.
As you can imagine, I got a little cross.
Fast forward a few matches to Saturday’s winning performance against those pesky Pests and you’ll find that the Wasps playmaker is none other than Andy Goode. You know, Andy Goode of Leicester fame. Worcester, as well, but mainly Leicester.
This guy has seen a thing or two in his career and when it comes to experience he positively drips it. I still remember, although I’d prefer not to, his drop goal that turfed us out of the Heineken Cup a few years back but he has, in fact, teased and outplayed us for many years. Cheer him, fear, him or revere him all you like, but one thing you can’t do is disrespect the guy.
I would have been surprised if a few words of jaunty banter hadn’t emanated from the Shed – we’re only human, after all – but for some, the desire to shout inane personal insults was an opportunity too exciting to pass up. And they did.
Which said more about them than it did about Andy Goode, I can tell you.
And what really makes me laugh is that if you call a rugby player a fat bastard and then that fat bastard plays a blinder, pulling all the right strings, controlling the game and kicking the goals and beats you … well you’ve just been beaten by a fat bastard and what does that make you?
And I suppose it was the same idiots who took delight in booing and shouting when Goode was kicking for goal. Do you remember what it was like when we played against Munster and Jonny Bentley was stepping up to take his kicks? Silent, it was. Silent.
No one enjoys losing but last Saturday’s game was exciting, not to say nerve-racking, and we saw eight tries, two of which were Christian Wade sizzlers.
Unfortunately, we also saw evidence that yahoos exist and they’re beginning to find their voice at Kingsholm, which is a great shame.
To be honest, that was a bit of a let-down, really, and it certainly didn’t live up to the hype. We were promised something special – an event that would match anything that happened back in nineteen hundred and whenever-it-was – but all we got was a bit of huff and puff. And that was it.
Storm? What storm?
There was, of course that other little matter that took place down the A46 but I’ve got no intention of dragging that up from my subconscious. It can stay there, undisturbed, as far as I’m concerned. My motto in life is simple: excruciating defeats at the hands of Bath Rugby are best purged from the memory banks and cast into the abyss of my forgetfulness. It’s the only way; by persuading myself it didn’t ever happen, eventually, the pain eases. After all, does a falling tree make any noise if there’s no one there to hear it? Or something.
Rugby match? What rugby match?
Why does the loss hurt so much? Why are derby matches so blooming do or die? It’s important to have ownership of the local bragging rights, I suppose, but when it comes to Bath there’s something more raw than that – the competiveness that runs through the Gloucester–Bath fixture is always particularly fruity.
We don’t like the Wreck, for a start. The Bath rugby ground is all very pretty when the sun is shining but when it isn’t (most of the time) it’s a soggy hell hole from which to watch rugby and a boggy hell hole on which to play rugby.
Then there’s the class thing. They’re a bunch of toffs, don’t you know, and they eat prawn sandwiches all day long made from organic wholemeal bread. Obviously. Most of them are called Jeremy and they speak proper English which leads to communication problems with your average Gloucester fan.
And finally there’s the history. In the good old days of the amateur game, Bath cheated. No word of a lie – they cheated. The word ‘shamateurism’ was coined by the Oxford English Dictionary to describe the Bath way of doing things. And the long and short of it, of course, was that Bath always seemed to beat Gloucester and we didn’t appreciate that.
Anyway, back to important matters: Sunday’s little squall was a storm that never was – where I live, anyway. A Michael Fish moment, if you like, but in reverse. All a bit annoying, given that I’d spent most of Sunday tidying away into the garage anything I found in the garden that looked a bit unstable, including my son.
As I went about my battening-down-the-hatches duties I started thinking that it doesn’t matter what He decides to chuck at us in the way of thunderbolts and lightning very very frightening because it pales into insignificance when you compare it to the storm that’s brewing over the hill in Gloucester at this very moment. It’s now an accepted fact – accepted by the whole world, I might add – that any Gloucester Rugby team that runs out onto the pitch on match day has a front five that would struggle to wrestle its way out of a soggy paper bag. Opposition teams target that area and, importantly, referees have got it in their noggins that if anything goes wrong in the scrum it must be Gloucester’s fault because they’re weak and useless. Ping.
Even as I write, Gloucester coaches are studying the Dark Arts Handbook for magical coaching methods that’ll change our fortunes, and our Nige is poring over a thesaurus, looking for new ways to say ‘We’ve got the personnel. We just need to adapt to the new scrummaging laws’. We’re even starting to sack decent squad players – good luck and thanks, Tim Molenaar – to create a bit of spare cash so we can go to market waving a shopping list.
And as far as I can make out if you’re over twenty stone, ugly, and have ever played rugby for South Africa or in Eastern Europe, you’ll be on that list.
Them were the days. Kicking a ball around with my brother in the garden and in those innocent times my one and only fantasy was about scoring goals for Manchester United and England (I was young and hadn’t had rugby thrust upon me at that stage. Okay?). I even sent a letter to Sir Matt Busby suggesting he might want to pay me a visit to see my skills.
And the rest is history.
These days my fantasies are a lot less innocent, I can tell you, and I can only imagine what it must be like to play football, or rugby, for England. Or Wales or Scotland or Ireland. Even France. Oh, the excitement of opening that letter … assuming of course it is still a letter. Please don’t tell me that these days they do it by email, or even worse, by text:
Yr in Eng sqd. congrats. LOL. SL xx
That would be just wrong.
I hope the five Gloucester players chosen to attend the elite squad training camp this week in Leeds – Burns, Kvesic, Morgan, Trinder and Twelvetrees – will allow me to be one of the last to congratulate them. It’s a great achievement.
At Gloucester we’re always proud of our boys who get the Twickers call-up but past experience has given us slight cause for concern. It’s a bit like when my daughter asks to borrow the car – nerves are set a-jangling – and then returns it twenty-four hours later with bits missing that were there the day before or dents and scratches that weren’t there the day before.
We hold our breath when Lancaster starts prowling around, licking his lips and slavering: ‘I’ll have him, him, him and him, thank you very much. Oh yes, I’ll take the big gormless one as well’. They tend to be released back to their club – as the saying goes – crocked, flashing official RFU sick notes: ‘No longer fit for purpose. Return to sender’.
So in two weeks’ time, our Nige is going to have to start thinking about his back row and his three-quarter line because his first choice players will either be playing for England or hobbling around on crutches.
I have a whimsical fancy that Aviva Premiership titles are won and lost during the AI and SN tournaments. I can’t be bothered to add up the amount of weeks that clubs are deprived of their players while the England team is being butchered by New Zealand and then, after Christmas, by Wales, but it’s quite a sizeable chunk of the season. It’s a time when teams with particular characteristics tend to pick up points. They are:
So, in the AI period to come (which reminds me: I assume, by now, you understand that AI does not stand for artificial insemination), I expect Exeter to do very well indeed. They are already a really professional unit lying sixth in the premiership and they’ll be dead chuffed they’re only contributing one player to Lancaster’s Losers. Saracens, however, will have seven players half-inched by Lancaster, so it’s ironic (or not – depending on your viewpoint) but they will also benefit from the AI period because the their squad is heaving with South African émigrés and it cheats … er, sorry … it manages the salary cap very efficiently.
And you never know, Worcester might even win a game.
There are no flies on our Nige – he knows all this and his game plan is obvious: last year we qualified for this year’s Heineken Cup and are benefitting financially from the experience although we’ve got no chance of winning it so we’ll use it to give experience to those players who might be deemed as second string which is vital in order to build up our Sid so we can qualify for it again next year be doing well enough in the premiership and next year we might have a better chance in the Heineken Cup because we’ve developed Sid.
And that’s all very easy to say. The only slight problem at the moment is … who am I trying to kid? It’s not slight at all, so allow me to rephrase that. The one huge bluebottle in the ointment – the one that keeps on buzzing and flapping its annoying wings and the one that won’t die and the one that is becoming very worrisome indeed is that we (Gloucester, obviously) are having trouble winning matches. Which doesn’t do much for our top-six premiership ambitions. Not even at Castle Grim – disparagingly referred to quite recently by one rugby columnist as the Wendy House that is Kingsholm – no even at Castle Grim are we winning matches with any sort of assuredness these days.
However, if you can ignore the bluebottle – big if, I know – you might want to applaud the concept of squad rotation to ensure a longer-term success. I certainly do and I thought the team picked to play against the Munster monsters just about hit the nail on the head. Try to ignore the refereeing – come on, make an effort – and the result – don’t forget, the result doesn’t matter – and you had a young team, with a couple of experienced heads looking after things, holding their own in the furnace that is Thomond Park. Even the scrum went pretty well, most of the time, which must be worth a high five or two.
In a couple of weeks time, when Billy 12Ts is doing his sterling stuff in the England back division and the four others are waving around their England sick notes, we’ll have a tried and blooded Sid to come to the rescue.
And that’s what I’d call ‘good coaching’.
I’ve had a funny old week. From the sublime – Will James and a roomful of mysterious pies – to the ridiculous – a Gloucester win that felt more like a loss.
And it all started with the pies …
When I’m not writing, my work involves proofreading and editing, which keeps the wolf from the door – but only just. And with the wolf in mind I do a spot of networking, from time to time. I’m not sure if you’re au fait with this new-fangled way of doing business but I’m told it’s all the rage and it seems to work for me: I turn up to fancy hotels or trendy bars, buy a half of bitter and chat to other networkers, as we like to call ourselves, about this and that but mainly about the price of bitter. If I’m lucky – very lucky – there’s a sandwich thrown in, as well.
Well, last Thursday I dropped in on the second Gloucester and Cheltenham Rugby Business Network hosted by Rob Thomas and got very, very lucky. Not only was the beer free (cherry and white bitter, of course) there were pies thrown in as well. And if you think a pie’s a pie and you eat it and that’s it, you obviously haven’t tried pies from The Sporting Pie Company, founded by the famous (if it’s possible to be made famous by Come Dine With Me) Paddy Castledine. They ain’t what they seem.
Sporting Pies come in one shape but there’s a surprise filling in each one and they’re all given rugby names. All very droll, I’m sure, but I was peckish and I had to pick one. Obviously, the Ref Pie was a non-starter, having probably been created by someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I assumed the ¾ Pie must be the girlie option – vegetables, all mouth and no trousers. That left the Prop Pie and the Hooker Pie, which I expected to be the gristly options. The Prop Pie would surely be too fatty as well and so I plumped, without much relish, for the Hooker Pie.
Surprise, surprise – it was wonderful. And chicken, too.
The other surprising fact to pop out of Sporting Pies is that Paddy’s co-founder, is none other than Gloucester Legend Luke Narraway, who now plays for … wait for it … Perpignan, who we beat last Saturday so incomprehensively … but I’ll come on to that in a moment.
Small and surprising world, eh?
But what I really loved about this particular networking event – apart from the pies and the beer – was meeting ex-Gloucester captain Adam Balding who is relishing his new role as Gloucester City’s co-ordinator for the preparations for Rugby World Cup 2015 and current Gloucester second row forward Will James.
Will James turned out to be yet another surprise package.
You see, there’s not a lot you’d have to do to Will to have him awarded first prize in any Herman Munster look-alike competition he cares to take part in – he’s got the forehead, you see. Having never spoken to him before I was half expecting to have shout a lot and use words of two syllables or less.
You can imagine my surprise when I realised that this guy is as articulate as they come, and very friendly, to boot. He explained in great detail the theory and practicality of those GPS gizmos the players wear during matches and he also told us about his role as chairman of the Rugby Players Association. This guy was a natural. He was put on the spot, too, by the question: ‘What went wrong on Sunday [against Exeter]? He spoke honestly and passionately: the players were extremely disappointed; they prided themselves as being a physical team; and they would go away, sort it out and return for the next match. This guy is very good indeed and would probably make a good politician.
And did they? What I mean is: did they, having been stuffed by those pesky injuns, go away and sort it out and get back on track for the match against Perpignan?
Well they won, didn’t they?
Well, yes, they did but I can’t help thinking that my rugby club is the biggest surprise package of the lot. I never quite know what I’m getting and every week I hold my breath to see what will unfold.
The good thing about just being a supporter is that, after the match, I can pretend nothing happened and continue my merry way through life. Not so our Nige. He’ll be scrabbling around the changing room floor for any morceaux de confort he can retrieve from the Perpignan match, because the bare statistic, the bottom line, if you like – 4 precious Heineken points – doesn’t tell the story of a victory snatched from the slavering jaws of a near stuffing. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration but it’s a fine old thing when I (the same Gloucester Ed who, over the course of the last few weeks, has been having a right pop at the three-quarters) start hollering at the top my voice: ‘For pity’s sake – give it to Jonny!’
And it’s a good job they did, all things considered.
And what about this for a surprise, a paradox, even: with his I-didn’t-get-a-hatful-of-All-Black-caps-for-nothing-up-and-at-‘em attitude, Jimmy Cowan was probably the stand-out player and the difference between the teams. He was wonderful – bossing the backs and bullying the big boys. And yet that was probably the worst scrum-half performance I’ve seen since Mauro Bergamasco’s back in 2009. Our Jimmy threw that rugby ball all over the shop – anywhere, that is, there wasn’t anyone to catch it.
It just doesn’t make sense, does it?
It’s quite possible I’m being a bit harsh. A win’s a win, and that bottom line I mentioned earlier – you know the one that says we beat Perpignan – was the most important statistic of the day.
And next week the test becomes very stern indeed. Will all our frailties be exposed by a wounded Munster at Thomond Park? Will our frailties be eclipsed by a passionate do-or-die, cherry-and-Cowan performance? Or will we be frailty-free – sublime in attack and rock-fast in defence.
Some time soon, when our Nige has got his feet under the table and is feeling comfortable (when you’re ready, Nige. No hurry) he needs to find an identity and nail it to the forehead of every Gloucester player. That way, when the supporters turn up on match days, there’s a good chance they’ll get what it says on the tin.
Did we lose a game of rugby on Sunday, or did the world end? I can’t quite decide.
I’m full admiration for the twenty-three Gloucester players who line up every week to do battle. In front of a passionate crowd they go out and ply their trade – a high-risk trade that involves bone-crunching confrontations. You’ve got to feel for them – once out on that pitch there is no escaping the judgment of the fans or, as it happens, the coaching staff who are receiving constant performance feedback from fancy GPS gizmos sewn into the players’ shirts.
Surely if things go wrong every now and then we can forgive them, can’t we? Everyone has an off day and it is only a game of rugby, after all.
Well, yes and no. Gloucester Rugby was completely dismantled by a Exeter who, once again, despite being pretty new to the premiership, showed themselves to be the complete professional unit. They were well drilled and they did all the basics with skill and commitment. Exeter Chiefs won the game, fair and square.
However, it was the manner of the losing, not the winning, that has so worried and enraged the Kingsholm faithful. It confirmed a lot of our worst fears.
It’s just that this seemed to be a thrashing waiting to happen and there have been many amongst us – one man’s sooth-sayer is another man’s doom-monger – who have been predicting this sort of carve-up for some time. ‘We just don’t have it up front,’ they’ve been shouting. Others, however – I am one, I do admit it – have been suggesting that we just don’t have it up front, out back, in the middle, down the sides, along the bottom or (and it’s quite important this) up top. Yes, the Gloucester front five was bossed around – not for the first time this season and, I fear, not for the last. But that’s old hat.
I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned this before but I used to play a little rugger, in my time. Even though I say it myself (no one else ever has, by the way) I used to be a bit of a nifty break-away forward. I have all sorts of stirring memories of tries I nearly scored but the Chiefs match on Sunday dragged up one particular incident in my playing career that I’d prefer to remain deep in my subconscious, thank you very much.
It was quite a few years back and I was playing for Cainscross RFC. I must have been a bit unfit or something because I was last to the ruck and I was just trying to catch my breath before I planted my head in the seething mass of body parts to see if I could help. The ball suddenly appeared in front of me so I picked it up and I looked around. There was one defender in front of me and our right wing, Gary Gofaster, to the right of me, was screaming for me to pass him ball. All I had to do was draw my man and pass it to him and he would screech to the try line, score a try to win the match – and get all the glory, as usual. In actual fact I didn’t even need to draw my man – our speedster seriously outpaced their crockster so all I had to do was pass him the blooming ball. I got my body in the right position to execute the perfect passing manoeuvre, fixed my target, and somehow managed to throw the ball over his head. The crockster ran through us, picked it up and scored under the posts. I was never allowed to forget that pass.
The point I’m rather labouring here is that in all my time playing schoolboy and club rugby, I only made one really bad pass and that was it. Normally my passing was pretty good – it was a basic rugby skill that I practised in training on Thursdays and then executed to blooming perfection every Saturday, except for the above occasion, of course.
Which brings me to my point: you would have thought, what with Gloucester being a professional rugby team an’ all, they would be able to pass the blooming ball to each other.
I’ve heard it said that if we had a competitive scrum, our backs would run rings around most teams because we have a set of super-dooper, give-the-ball-to-Jonny backs. Well, I’ve got news for you: we ain’t. Not at the moment we ain’t. What wakes me up in the night and gets me tossing and turning and sweating is that there were so many instances in the game of really poor personal skills, especially in the back line. Surely we understand the concept of passing the ball so that the runner doesn’t have to stop dead in his tracks or jump in the air. Surely we understand that the ball should be passed in front of the receiver so he runs into it and not into the stands to some guy in the third row. And surely we understand that a five-on-one overlap is usually termed a ‘walk-in’. Or are we just unable to execute it.
But what the hell do I know? The coaches are more experienced than me and the players more skilful than I ever was.
In Nige we trust.
Let’s not beat about the bush. Gloucester Rugby has reached crisis point and it’s about time we stopped messing about. We need to talk about our scrum.
I know, I know, you’re sick to death with all things to do with the scrum. ‘Stop going on, won’t yer,’ you shout. ‘Just let us enjoy the game.’ In broad terms you got heartily fed up with ‘Crouch. Hold. Pause. Touch. Have a cup of tea. Engage. Set. Oh bugger, let’s try that again’ because it was beginning to get in the way of a good game of rugby. (I say ‘was’ because the new scrummaging laws were aimed at getting rid of all that nonsense. Twelve good men are out on that one, I can tell you, and the proof of the cherry trifle will be in the scoffing.)
In more specific terms, you’re equally bored with the likes of me and a few others going on and on about it until death (or a monster prop) do us stop because our Nige told us we have the personnel and it’s just a matter of getting the hang of these new-fangled laws and, anyway, in Him we do trust.
Well forgive me for daring to suggest that all is not cherry and rosy and smelling of Horlicks but I think we’ve made a bit of a boo-boo. And I say ‘we’ in a polite, let’s-not-mention-names-and-point-fingers-too-early-in-the-article sort of way.
We went into this season on a wing and a Nige’s prayer but the way things are turning out, the one wing – for all its flapping – ain’t enough, and to make matters worse, it seems that our Nige is praying to some sort of vengeful God that was bullied at school and grew up hating team sports.
Anyway, let’s look at things logically and in the cold light of day, as my bank manager used to say.
The season beckoned a new dawn of scrummaging (yawn, yawn, not another one), as you probably know. No longer is the scrum a simple oh-bugger-someone’s-knocked-on-let’s-have-a-scrum to restart play. No, that went out when the All Blacks discovered how to cheat; the scrum has become a sub-plot. And while that’s all fine and dandy because all team sports have interesting little intrigues to keep your average punter guessing, this little sub-plot has turned into a monster.
Anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted by intrigues and monsters, the scrummaging laws changed in an effort to avoid the collapsing scrum and our Nige, amidst the clamour of most of Gloucester who were calling for a Front Row Reinforcement Programme to be put into motion, was insistent that we’d be alright on the night, which is all very well except that we play in the day. Without putting too fine a point on it, as the season has unfolded our front three have looked worryingly suspect in the set scrum. Nothing too calamitous, but, as I say, worryingly suspect.
When it comes to scrums ‘worryingly suspect’ does not win Aviva Premierships – it doesn’t even do top six. What ‘worryingly suspect’ does do, however, is relegation battles with Worcester. As we chop and change from eleventh position to twelfth position and from twelfth to eleventh we can shout merry salutations and exchange jolly gestures: “Wotcha Dean, me old mucker, how’s it going?’ If he hasn’t already run back to Sky, of course.
The one thing that does win Aviva Premierships, however, is gert big lumps of granite who pack down as an impenetrable front-three unit, are tutored in the secretive arts of collapsing the scrum and just happen to run like gazelles should anyone give them the ball in open play.
At the beginning of the season, the Gloucester front row was to be a pick-and-mix affair. Any one player from each of the following lines:
Hookers – Huia Edmonds, Darren Dawidiuk, Korree Britton, Dan George
Looseheads – Nick Wood, Dan Murphy, Yann Thomas.
Tightheads – Shaun Knight, Rupert Harden
And that’s yer lot. All fine figures of men, the lot of them, but that’s the problem, you see: there aren’t a lot of them. Especially in the tight head position.
When you’ve got looseheads offering/begged/ordered to play tighthead and hookers offering/begged/ordered to play loosehead, you know that all is not well in the state of Kingsholm and it only needed a thing or two to go a teensy-weensy bit pear-shaped and we were going to be deep in the doo-doos. So you can imagine the colour of my expletives when all of a sudden I see our front row forwards queuing up for red cards like it’s number one in the top-ten-things-you-must-do-before-you-die list. Wood’s got an eight-week ban and now Britton’s sending off in the ‘A’ team match against Leicester when he went a couple of rounds of fisticuffs with ex-colleague Ryan Lamb is bound to result in some garden leave for him as well.
At the time of writing we have an extra little worry. Edmonds is gingerly feeling his way back to match fitness, and the last thing we needed was the first thing we got: a prop injury. So, with Nick Wood and (probably) Koree Britton serving their time, and now Dan Murphy injured, it looks like lucky Yann Thomas will be playing loosehead against Exeter. Lord knows who’ll be on the bench, but he better be good. And very well insured.
What with the constraints of the salary cap and other areas of the squad that needed reinforcement, there have been all sorts of difficult decisions to be made and far be it from me – so early in October – to say that our Nige has got it wrong. Christmas, perhaps, but not October.
It’s a funny thing this life business but at about two minutes to five last Saturday evening a horrible silence descended on Kingsholm. Funny because a little earlier, at about three minutes to five, the stadium was bubbling over with chanting and applauding and singing and hooraying and cheering and noise like we’d just won the World Cup. There was, admittedly, a small pocket of the Saints Resistance Army giving a gloatingly merry rendition of that oh-when-the-Saints-go-marching-in ditty, which I thought was a bit insensitive, and to add salt into the wounds the Northampton players were hugging and kissing and high-fiving after a wonderful last-minute Northampton try, started by George North back in his own 22. Meanwhile, that awful silence in the Shed was disturbed only by weeping and the gnashing of teeth, and the echoing footfall of a few others, unable to face the unjustness of it all, as they made their way out of the ground in dazed disbelief.
Funny, too, because the final twist to this game was yet to be twisted. You all know what happened next: a restart, an injury-time infringement at the scrum and a Billy Cooltrees penalty kick to give Gloucester the win. Never in doubt, really.
Having had a few days to sober up (figuratively speaking, of course) I’ve come round to the conclusion that I just can’t take it anymore. I’m getting on a bit, for pity’s sake, and it won’t take too many more heart-stopping, winning-losing-winning-losing performances before my ticker says, ‘That’s it. I’m calling it a day.’ And then where will I be?
One minute I was in the depths of despair, trying to decide whether my next piece of writing would be a suicide note or an end-of-the-world blog that would highlight all the deficiencies in the Gloucester team which ultimately allowed George North to set up the final try of the game. No one was going to escape the wrath of my keyboard – especially not our Nige.
Two or three minutes later, the roar went up and I was on cloud nine. Gloucester had won a famous victory – in overtime, no less – and every thing was just hunky-dory. It was no time to be bashful, either. ‘Hallelujah,’ I shouted. ‘Let joy be unconfined.’ And I do confess I grabbed the poor sod sitting next to me and we danced a merry jig down the aisle. We were both a bit excited and I think we might have agreed to marry each other, but what we definitely agreed on was that the world was lovely and that Gloucester City in particular was the most beautiful place in the world (okay, okay, that was perhaps one celebration too far). And the encomiums would flow when I got home to write this blog – of that I was certain. (Encomiums, eh. What the hell are they?) You know the sort of thing: dominant pack; scintillating backs; passion; sang froid; cool professionalism, worthy winners; blah, blah, blah.
Hold on a minute, in the space of three minutes Gloucester Rugby is transformed from being Aviva Premiership relegation contenders with knobs on to top-four shoe-ins? That can’t be right, surely?
The emotion of the moment had got the better of me. It was a wonderful match, alright, with the correct ending, but Northampton nearly beat us and I think we need to hold on to our horses and rein in the adoration a touch.
Yes, the Gloucester crowd in general and the Shed in particular, is without doubt the most uplifting bunch of supporters in the Aviva Premiership. The noise level of the support was at such a pitch, I can only imagine what it must do for the players.
Yes, one to fifteen, the team played with great passion and Kingsholm thrilled to it. There were some wonderful individual performances and Jimmy Cowan was the business – he just oozed professionalism and all that All-Black experience made all the difference in the set and the loose. I have to admit that I’vebeen a bit of a critic in the past but Saturday was a mind-changing experience. Okay? If he continues in that form, I want him as first choice nine every match.
But the scrum is still an area of concern. This was never more obvious than in the last scrum of the game where we were destroyed – you remember, that was the scrum where we were perversely awarded a penalty to win the match. We were driven backwards, we were popping up, and we were struggling to deal with the ball at the back.
Of the six scrums in the first half, only one was completed and that was hooked against the head; the five others went the way of penalties or free kicks (3-2 to Northampton). This tells me that either the Gloucester scrum was weak and the ref didn’t know what he was doing, or the Saints scrum was weak and the ref didn’t know what he was doing, or that there was parity in the scrum and the ref did know what he was doing. Whichever way, it was a mess.
The game should have been won well before the final whistle. There were a couple of passing blunders down the left wing in the first half, A Trinder knock-on as he tried to touch down and Freddy should have taken three points instead of tapping and going because although the ‘tapping’ was well executed, the ‘going’ was a bit short lived.
And if my mate Jimmy had still been in the scrum half position in the dying minutes of the game he would most definitely never have passed the ball out to Billy 12trees. That ball would have been glued to the forwards for phase after phase after phase until the clock ticked out and we could hoof the ball into kingdom come.
So, we’ve got the passion, it seems. Now all we need is the nous – and that doesn’t come after a session on the training park, I can tell you. That comes with 51 All Black test caps, or something very similar.
Up north again next week and it could be season defining. Whatever that means.