In our heart of hearts, no one from this part of the world expected to walk away from Franklin Gardens with a win to our name. No, that was the stuff of dreams and fantasy.
There was revenge in the air, for starters. Very few who witnessed last September’s fixture will ever forget the magical last-minute Northampton try and Gloucester’s referee-assisted, Houdini-esque, last-gasp win. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, of course, but if you’re a Saint you’ve got a long memory – Northampton wanted this one very badly. And let’s not forget that Northampton are currently the premiership leaders and … err … well, we’re not.
No, we couldn’t possibly win this one … could we?
And yet we had our gander up (whatever that means). The previous week, you see, we’d done okay and beaten Harlequins and there had been whisperings on Westgate Street that we’d turned the corner and at last it was all going to come good. Top six be buggered, we were heading for the play-offs. In the space of eighty minutes, the sun had come out in Gloucester and we had become world beaters. Move aside you No Hopers – we’re on a roll. (We have rather witty names for all our rivals: the Not-Nots for example are London Irish because they’re not Irish and they’re not from London; Wasps are known to us as the Pests; and Northampton are NoHopeton. Ha, ha – all very droll, I’m sure you’ll agree.)
And then there was the referee – and it’s probably best not to mention names here – but I don’t think he had his best match. Call me naïve if you want, but I was sort of expecting that the referee would have half an idea on the laws and procedures of the game. I was quite surprised, as you can imagine, to discover that the guy with the whistle was just that: some guy with a whistle.
I could list all the wrong calls he made but in all honesty his performance had not the slightest bearing on the result. Call me naïve if you want, but I was sort of expecting that the boys in cherry and white – or some of them, at least – would have a bit more get-up-and-go in them. I was quite surprised when it turned out the boys in cherry and white were just that: boys in cherry and white.
I find the lack of intensity to be the most worrying aspect of Gloucester’s performance and it has been a theme that has run throughout the season.
In the previous evening’s match I’d had the pleasure of watching Bath play Saracens and you can say what you like about Jaques Burger – although I don’t suggest you say it to his face – but I could do with injecting a little of what he’s got into the backsides of a few of the Gloucester players.
And I’ll say the same about Northampton’s Calum Clark. In the second half, when the Saints woke up and realised they were playing a team from the nether regions of the league, the sheer intensity of Clark was a joy to behold … well, I suppose if this guy is bearing down on you, snarling that he’s going to rip your head off and then break your arms, then joy is perhaps the wrong word, but to the casual observer, it is a wonderful sight … in a Romans-at-the-Coliseum sort of way.
Is it possible to coach passion? If anyone can, surely a Welshman can. They’re full of the stuff. Our Nige is clearly aware of the situation because after every match he talks about our inability to impose ourselves on the opposition. ‘Impose’! That’s not a very passionate word! What we want – okay, what I want – is our Nige to tell his players that unless they get out there and knock seven shades of Hades out of the opposition, pausing only to pick them up by the testicles and swing them into touch, then they can blooming well sing for their half-time quarter of orange.
It’s not rocket science, this coaching malarky.
I always enjoy reading the match reports on the official Gloucester Rugby website. This is writing at its best and I can’t imagine the agonies this guy (or gal, of course) goes through week-in, week-out. With his editor’s instructions ringing in his ears – ‘for crying out loud, make it sound like they’re quite good’ the poor hack unfailingly produces some wonderfully inventive prose:
‘Gloucester gave it everything at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday afternoon … ’
That’s a cracker, for starters.
‘In truth it was a scrappy old encounter … there was little to choose between the two sides.’
Yeah, right. Except for twenty six points, of course.
‘Gloucester had fronted up manfully for an hour or so.’
Even if that’s true, what did they do for the other twenty minutes. Or so.
‘Calum Clark finally wriggled out of a tackle to score.’
A classic. For ‘finally wriggled out of a tackle’ read ‘powered off the back of a rolling maul and crashed through his opposite number as if said opposite number was a wet paper bag’.
That’s the way to write ’em.
I don’t know how long you lot can hold your breath but down here in Gloucester we can do it for ages and ages. We’ve had plenty of practice, you see. There was a sharp intake of breath when our Nige sat down after his mid-term review and told us things hadn’t been going so well and that there would be changes – sweeping changes across the board – and we’ve been holding it ever since, waiting for the big announcements.
Couple that with the facts that (1) our young prodigy at fly half was becoming slightly less prodigious and has found pastures new where he could freshen up and develop into the star we all thought he was, (2) our back-ups, in the shapes of Bentley and Taylor, are crocked (I’ve rather forgotten what they look like, to be honest) and (3) our stand-in, the mercurial Ryan Mills, has been tempted away by Dean ‘call me Banquo’ Ryan, and you’ve got the whole of Gloucester playing Guess Who’s Coming to Town (very difficult when you’re holding your breath) Is it Botica, or Cipriani or Laidlaw or indeed all of ’em.
I’m just praying it ain’t the Cips. (ABC as I call it – anyone but Cipriani.) Apart from all the baggage that comes with this young man (and it’s not just a suitcase of it, either. It’s trunks and trunks of chip-on-shoulder, celebrity-chasing, nightclub-boozing baggage – and it’ll arrive a couple of weeks after he arrives, you watch) I’ve never really taken to his receive-the-ball-and-crab-across-the-field style of play. It’s just too … well, crab-like for my taste.
He’s doing a fine job up north so let’s hope he stays put.
I’m told that all the good money is on Greig Laidlaw joining us and that puts me in a terrible quandary. You can call me a boring old misanthrope but I’ve never really approved of those clever jonnies who reckon they can play scrum half and fly half. A bit cocky, don’t you think? Two very different positions requiring two very different skill sets and young Greig figures he’s got the lot. We’ll be the judge of that, young man.
Anyway, we’ve got a scrum half – Dan Robson – so what we need is an understudy; a promising youngster who’ll learn on the job. If Laidlaw does cross the border let’s hope it’s with ‘10’ stitched to his back and not ‘9 but I’ll do 10 if you want’.
I don’t know whether or not you noticed but Gloucester won a home match last weekend. No, I’m serious – things are really changing and the mood is lifting. We beat the multi-coloured Quins with consummate ease (ahem) and, as our Nige noted in his post-match smug-fest – can you blame the guy – we were the ones playing the rugby, for the most part.
The fact that we didn’t win by a larger margin was a bit disappointing but, come on(!), as soon as we’ve relearnt a few of the basic skills of straight running and scrummaging there’ll be no stopping us and we’ll be getting all cocky again. And you’d better watch out because we’re pretty unbearable when we’re cocky.
Talking of butchering chances I notice that Give-it-to-Jonny did his fair share of slaughtering at Twickers. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – I’m a bit of a fan on the quiet. He’s still young and when he matures up a bit and gains a bit of self assurance he’ll be a full-time rugby magician.
He does make me smile, though, when he starts running backwards in search of open space and I can hardly contain myself when all his team-mates start jumping for cover, with surprised where-the-hell-are-you-going? looks all over their faces. It’s interesting that this run-the-wrong-way tactic of his is when he’s at his most dangerous – dangerous for both teams, I mean. He either finds the gap and streaks to the line for a give-it-to-Jonny special or, as happened last weekend, he’s tackled as he runs the wrong way and with all the momentum going towards his own try line, he turns the ball over.
Looks like Benjamin the Tank Engine will be starting next time against Wales. With poor old Billy Vunipola injured our own Ben Morgan will get the starting nod. He played well again against Scotland and Ireland and it’ll be interesting to see him start.
Ben Morgan is a big guy and he fits the job description of the modern number eight. I suppose that’s fair enough in these days of wham-bang-thank-you-ma’am rugby. The forwards – all one to eight of them – have got to punch holes in defences and in that respect both he and Billy Vunipola fit the bill.
I remember in my day – here we go again! – whenever I was allowed to escape the ear-grinding pain and unpleasantness of the second row, I used to relish playing number eight. These days, my 12 stone 2 pounds would be small even by diminutive scrum-half standards (fair play, even in them days I was a bit of a light weight) and punching holes in anything, let alone opposition flankers bristling with joie de tuer, was not on the menu. So I’d blooming well evade them all with some pretty nifty footwork, sleight of hand and the occasional dummy.
Oh yes – them were the days. If Ben Morgan were to show off some nifty footwork (or try to) I have a feeling he’d crash to floor, wishing he’d stuck to the tried and tested bulldozer approach to life.
There ain’t much finesse to being a forward these days.
What a great idea: a face-to-face forum for fans – an opportunity to give the management team a bit of a going-over with pertinent and hard-hitting questions. Trouble is, there was so much I wanted to ask and so my one question would have to be a cracker.
Yes, that’s the baby. I would stare at them, unflinchingly: ‘Pick the bones out of that,’ My eyes would say.
I never got to ask it, of course – I couldn’t quite muster the courage – but I got the feeling Nigel Davies, Ryan Walkinshaw, Stephen Vaughn and Paddy Anson were more than happy to discuss the season, warts and all, in as much detail as we wanted.
Paddy Anson is our fitness and conditioning supremo and he talked very confidently, explaining the wizzy things he does with the electronic gadgetry that all rugby players get harnessed to – there is no hiding place for the professional rugby player, these days.
He conceded that, although he has all the hard data regarding every ounce of energy the team is expending during a match, substitutions are always the coach’s call. His job is more about preparation for the match and analysis after it. The coach knows best, he says. He even admitted that he would always take a good losing performance over an ugly win.
He might be on his own there.
Interestingly, he pinched a question that should have been aimed at Nigel: ‘Mine!’ he shouted as the question floated towards the foursome. ‘Why did the forwards walk to the lineouts?’ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘To get the call right – not because they are tired.’
Trouble is, I don’t think anyone in the room was suggesting that he’d done such a bad job that our cherry and white heroes are too knackered to get quickly to the lineouts. It’s just that your average supporter wants the forwards to march up to their positions snarling and slavering. The ponderous Sunday afternoon slouch sends all the wrong signals. What happens is this:
Ball kicked into touch. Our lineout. Forwards meander to the position indicated by the touch judge (or whatever politically correct name he’s called now … or she, of course). Five yards out, said forwards huddle together, form a committee and appoint a spokesperson, and decide the call. After all objections and any other business have been settled they unhurriedly make their way to the lineout position, by which time, the opposing team are growing impatient and making get-a-bloody-move-on comments to the referee.
Now, I can almost understand the huddle – you’ve got to be clear about the call, after all. But why, in the name of Castle Grim do we have to meander, oh so slowly, up to the mark? Are we hoping, perhaps, the opposition forwards will give up the will to live … or what?
So that was one question not answered.
The big suit was there, of course. Stephen Vaughan spoke with great passion about his club and explained some of the recent decisions. I mentioned to him that I didn’t think there was enough information coming out of the club – the upshot being that gloomy old gits like myself get it all wrong – and there was, he said, a very fine line to be trodden between telling people everything and telling people nothing. He had, evidently, tightened up on what he allowed to emanate from the club because previously Toms, Dicks and Harrys were leaking information willy-nilly; careless talk cost lives and all that.
Well that’s all very well, but the paradox is as follows: CEO, Director of Rugby, Club Chairman and Head of Strength and Conditioning all appeared on this public forum to talk openly, honestly and publically – obviously – about the present dire situation. My question , therefore, is this: if four club big-nobs can talk so informatively in a forum of this nature, why can’t press releases be equally as open. Give the fans as much you can, without compromising anything too delicate, I say.
And our Nige was able to explain a couple of situations that had previously left supporters and grumpy old gits like me scratching our heads and coming to the wrong conclusions.
Akapusi Qera, our he informed us, threw his toys out of the pram – despite the club bending over backwards to accommodate. There were all sorts of legal and insurance reasons why he could not be allowed to play in that extra, unscheduled match for Fiji.
He also emphasised that the club didn’t ‘let Ryan Mills go’. He was seduced away by a promise of big bucks – well, bigger bucks than Gloucester was prepared to offer, anyway. The club weighed up the pros – his undoubted talent – against the cons – his history of injury – and came up with a realistic offer. The silver-tongued Dean Ryan was not so circumspect.
It’s either the lovely Welsh lilt or I’m going soft in my old age because I really enjoyed listening to our Nige – it seemed to come from the heart. I reckon this bloke cares. He admitted mistakes – naivety was one, for starters – and he’s promised change across the board. The team, he assured us, will be better next year.
The dapper Ryan Walkinshaw was there, of course, waxing lyrical about his countless business interests and, he looked our Nige straight in the eyes and threw down the gauntlet: top four next year, Nige, he said. Or else.
As promised, I cracked open a bottle of Moet et Chandon following the loss at Leicester. A losing bonus point and we’re all happy … aren’t we?
Well, no, actually. It’s all very well writing off the season and putting all your jam in next year’s basket, but what we might have achieved last Sunday with a half-decent pack is only to be dreamed about. There was barely a completed scrum and those that were incomplete – there were many – ended with a penalty or free kick against us. Leicester weren’t great and we were the better team I thought. At least our backs, with the Warrior-elect Ryan Mills in the ten position (ho-hum), are beginning to run straight and – dare I say it – threatening lines.
We could have, should have, would have, blooming well ought t’have won that bugger.
I’ve had my knuckles rapped. Big time.
I am, it seems, too negative and the last thing the club needs right now, I’m told, is a weekly blog full of what-the-the-hell’s-going-on questions. What we need, Ed, said the knuckle rapper, is more positivity: build the club up a bit, he droned.
Chastised, I am, chastised.
I tried to explain to him – the knuckle-rapper, that is – that every week as I wander the streets of our fair city dreaming of the halcyon pre-professional days before I became all cynical, I rack my brains for the positive slant. You know, that subtle blend of words that’ll refer to the little issues we have in an understated manner while at the same time bigging up the good stuff. That, I’m told, is what any decent supporter-cum-rugby writer would do. But then, at the end of the day when I plonk myself down in front of my keyboard, it all comes out: all those taboo, what-the-the-hell’s-going-on questions.
And I can just hear the knuckle-rapper: ‘Call yourself a supporter, Ed? Call yourself a writer?’
Anyway, with another loss at Sale, my gloom hasn’t lifted much and I challenge any glass-half-full-happy-clapping-pill-pushing Gloucester supporter to put a positive spin on life at the moment. There was, I suppose, a half-decent fight back at the end to bring home the bacon –aka the losing bonus point – so what more can a Gloucester Rugby follower expect these days. We are, after all, a foot-of-the-table team and we’ll be happy with whatever points we can muster, thank you very much. Next up, Leicester away, and if we manage an LBP there I’ll really be cracking open the champers.
Still we’ve got the new team to look forward to, haven’t we? That’ll be the team that the powers-that-be have, all of a sudden, decided to buy. We’ve already got half a scrum contracted to run out at Kingsholm next season and we’re all waiting – with baited breath, I can tell you – for further announcements regarding the rest of the replacement XV.
I find it peculiar – but in a very positive way, obviously – that at the beginning of the season we were going to hit the ground running and, more importantly, we had all the right personnel in place bristling with get-up-and-go and joie de jouer who were going to take the Aviva Premiership by storm.
Hit the ground running? We haven’t landed yet. Now, half way through the season, we’re scratching around for LBPs and sending money-bags Walkinshaw out into the world with instructions that he shouldn’t return unless he’s bought a replacement quick-fix team crammed with Tongans, All Blacks, South Africans, Argentines and the odd Welshman (no comment).
What sort of message is that sending out to the present incumbents?
And talking of present incumbents – what a storming match Jonny May had up at Murrayfield . I was shouting ‘Give it to Jonny’ through much of the first half and luckily in the second, they did. With the ridiculous, gob-smackingly vacuous words of Austin Healey a distant memory (‘And in May’s case, if he gets a whack on the nose, he needs to brave it out and stay on the field … maybe he was told he had to come off – but whatever happened on the sidelines May should have stayed on the field’), May stuck two very figurative fingers up and said ya boo sucks.
Nice one Jonny.
Plenty of good news this week – a win against Wasps, all those England call-ups – but the announcement that we are losing Tavis Knoyle, Ryan Mills and Matt Cox left me a-gnashing and a-wailing. Three of the brightest sparks of the club, one of whom has only just arrived, and we’re saying au revoir. For the love of all that is saintly and good in Gloucester Town – not much, I grant you – what the blooming hell is going on?
The situation now at Gloucester Rugby is that we have no obvious number ten, one number nine (okay, two if you count the soon-to-be-departing All Grump, Jimmy Cowan) and just three centres in Tindall, Twelvetrees and Trinder. Minor Burns could, I suppose, step up from the junior ranks to cover the fly-half position and you never know, Tim Taylor might rise from the metaphorical dead and amaze us all … but that particular scenario is about as likely as Worcester Warriors staying in the premiership.
Talking of which, I am slightly bemused that a player of the calibre of Ryan Mills has decided to join the walking dead up the M5. Let us not forget that one, Ryan Mills is (or was) destined for great things and two, Worcester Rugby Club isn’t. Not in the foreseeable future anyway. They are doomed, I tell you, doomed. And once you’re down there – in the championship, that is – it’s never that easy to claw yourself back up. Just ask Leeds Carnegie. The ridiculous money-spinning play-off system that has been introduced to decide the league competition reduces the whole season’s endeavour to a ridiculous two-match lottery. A system, methinks, designed to bring extra coffers to the clubs and to the RFU and has nothing to do with fairness in the promotion and relegation procedures.
It matters not a jot that Dean Ryan hasn’t darkened the gates at Kingsholm for four and a half years, like the ghost of Banquo, we just can’t seem to get rid of the meddling devil but what can possibly be the attraction to Ryan Mills of a season – at least a season – in the championship?
Money, I suppose, is the simple answer. Money, eh? Don’t you just love the way it contorts and twists the things you hold dear.
He has, evidently, listened to what the silver-tongued Dean Ryan has had to say and has given it his stamp of approval. Furthermore, he wants to be repatriated into the coaching arms of the ex-Gloucester Ryan–Hogg combination. On the face of it, very laudable, but I just don’t understand it.
And that seems to be the case with Worcester generally. Fans, management and owner – they all seem to be convinced by the Dean Ryan philosophy of pain today and jam tomorrow. Only time will tell, I suppose, but Worcester Warriors seem to be steaming into the iceberg with amazing equanimity.
Still, that’s their problem and not for this blog. Good luck to them, I say. I’m just a little miffed – Ryan Mills is an outstanding talent and home bred, to boot, and we should be hanging on to him for dear life.
What bothers me is that down here in Gloucester – shoot me down, I dare you– that we’re in panic mode and we’ve changed our thinking somewhat. No matter the fine words that we are nurturing local talent, and building a local club – we are, it seems, going the cheque-book route and we’re currently in the market, looking for commodities. We’ve already bought a complete front row and an Argentine lock; now we need a back line.
The rumour mill has it that there could be ten to fifteen players joining Gloucester Rugby for next season and while that’s all fine and dandy from a wow-that’s-exciting point of view, I’m not sure it’s any good for the development of the club either in terms of local talent or in terms of its long-term success.
And I’m pretty sure that if you’d asked Ryan Walkinshaw (we’re knee-deep in Ryans down here in the west country) six months ago whether we’d be this busy-bee active in the transfer market at this particular time in the season, he’d have reeled more fine words about wanting to be a club with local traditions and how remaining competitive was desirable, but remaining profitable was essential.
Will this new tack bring home the bacon, I ask? The proof of the pudding – as they say – will be in the eating.
Bacon pudding, anyone?
You wait blooming months for a statement from the CEO and then, would you believe it, two come along at once. I think he must like the attention I gave him last week when he emerged from the parapets and told us about this and that. In his latest interview he explains that he’s full of praise for the quality of the support the team gets and he’s just letting us know how much he appreciates us. Isn’t that sweet? We love you too, Stephen.
“Generally, Gloucester Rugby fans are very understanding, very intelligent and if we give 100 per cent, and have the intensity and passion they will support us through thick and thin.”
You should know by now, Stephen, that Gloucester fans are in it for the long haul and no matter how dense the thick is, or how skinny the thin is, we’ll be there doing what we’re good at: supporting Gloucester, and – just every now and then – offering you advice when we think you need it. And, to be honest, you’ve been needing it quite a lot recently and it must be comforting to know that the Shedweb Forum is only a few clicks away. In fact, going back to the “intensity” and “passion” you mention, you don’t even have to give 100% to claim the fabled Gloucester support. In the Saracens match, for example, I reckon we only got about 60% from the team but have we done an Austin Healey on you? I should co-co?
I couldn’t help but notice the “generally” bit, though. Would it have hurt so much to say: “Gloucester Rugby fans are very understanding, very intelligent … blah, blah, blah” and left out the “generally” bit, even though, fair play, there are a few of us who are a hooker short of front row? That was a little hurtful, to be honest, and I can only pray it wasn’t directed at me; I am, after all, Mr Empathetic – even my wife thinks so – and my three ‘O’ levels (two if you don’t count Spoken English, which no employer ever has, more’s the pity) will bear witness to my intelligence.
Anyway, next time you tell us how wonderful we are, leave out the “generally” bit, will you? There’s a good chap.
I was looking forward to the Scarlets game – not because the Anglo-Welsh competition holds any real interest for me – but I was excited by the team of youngsters we sent across the dyke to do battle. Fair play, I hadn’t heard of half of them, but what a wonderful opportunity for these guys to pull up their socks, think of Gloucester and give 100%. I was always going to be scrappy, what with the weather and the fact they’d never played together before (I bet most of them hadn’t heard of half of them before, either) and I have to confess a particular interest: Jonny Bentley.
I don’t know Jonny Bentley but my heart goes out to him (told you I was Mr Empathetic). From what I’ve seen he is clearly a gifted rugby player and when I first heard he was to join Gloucester I was all of a tiz and got all excited. My immediate reaction was that someone at Gloucester – and I assumed it to be our Nige – had been very astute indeed.
On slightly closer inspection, however, I became a little confused. I don’t want to open up old wounds (if you do, you can have a look at my article Buying a Second-Hand Pirate) but not to put too fine a point on it, it appears that poor old Jonny was a little the worse for wear when we bought him – he hadn’t played for more than a season. He was, as we say in the trade, damaged goods and possibly not, after all, the most astute business decision Gloucester Rugby has ever made. It was the first time in our Nige’s tenure that I first doubted the man and although I tried, along with everyone else, to put a gloss on the sorry business, it was, as I say, a sorry business.
And not a lot has happened since then to change my mind – quite the opposite, in fact. He’s played in two matches, managing just over 90 minutes of rugby. Of course, I wish him all the best in his recovery from what the Gloucester Rugby website calls his latest ‘knock’. I’d love it if he made a speedy comeback and proved me wrong by becoming a Gloucester legend, but I just can’t see it, I’m afraid.
There’s more than a whiff of spring in the air down here in Gloucestershire – the days seem to be getting a bit longer and there’s a touch of warmth in the sun at last.
And Gloucester are scoring tries, again.
What a great win that was at Perpignan. Not only was it a five-try haul – which is a hat-full, in my book – but they included a classic and obligatory give-it-to-Jonny try (how he managed to knock over most of the Perpignan back line without actually touching them I’ll never know), a set-scrum, push-over try – how long since we last scored one of those? – and three others that saw forwards and backs combining – when did we last see a bit of that?
We leaked a couple of softies, unfortunately, but we came away from Perpignan with a resounding win under our belts, which was a shot in the arm that many of us craved. It’s certainly feels a whole lot better than the cold turkey we’ve been going through.
I should think the management team were pretty chuffed, too, not to say relieved, and it seems that behind the scenes at Kingsholm there’s a lot going on.
After the rather depressing autumn term review, our leader Stephen Vaughan has given us the New Year message to gladden our hearts. In his interview with the Citizen he said a lot of the stuff that I certainly wanted to hear.
Let’s see, now; when it comes to recruitment he talks of spending inordinate amounts of time – whole weekends, even – on the telephone phoning every rugby agent in the world:
“We’re very active and know exactly where we need players, and what type of people and characters we want.”
Foremost in his mind is Freddy’s replacement – there’s a lump in my throat and tear in my eye at the very thought of it:
“We’re scouring the world and want a 10 with all the usual attributes but it’s not just the obvious we look at. You want them to kick their points, be a pivotal person and get the backs going.”
He has an eye – a priority, even – for nurturing young local players which is encouraging:
“We have a wealth of talent, some really good under-20s coming through and our under-18s are unbeaten. We have to take all of that into account before we look elsewhere.”
I’ve never been a business man and so there is a little part of me that would like to see the club stride into the market place – à la Saracens – buying players left, right and centre but he’s determined, it seems – to stay profitable and within the cap. This has to be the only way forward, so well done, that man.
And at last, the club’s mission statement – well, a boiled-down version of it at least:
“We have to be a self-sufficient and profitable business while remaining in the top four – that’s our mission statement.”
Top four, eh? That’ll be next season, I assume.
He also mentions, albeit briefly, the elephant in the room – this season’s disappointing performance:
“It will be a holistic piece. We have to be very careful not to blame the forwards for this year. There have been a number of games where we have had a platform and not had a result.”
I’m not quite sure what the “holistic piece” is – the team, perhaps – but this little snippet is more interesting for what it doesn’t say than for what it does say. The “holistic” bit suggests we shouldn’t be blaming anybody because it’s all one big happy, interconnected unit; more specifically, we shouldn’t be blaming the forwards, but by inference (“there have been a number of games where we have had a platform and not had a result”) the backs haven’t performed either.
It’s a good job we’re not blaming anybody, then, because you just don’t know where that flying fickle finger of “the buck stops here” might end up.
The joy of it! At last I’ve come away from Kingsholm with a smirk on my face – almost a grin, if the truth be known – and I can resume my love affair with Gloucester Rugby. They gave their all – every single adorable one of them – for eighty beautiful minutes and walked off the pitch, dripping sweat and glory. They and we were all exhausted at the final climax but passion has come my way again, and it’s one hell of a relief.
I saw forwards competing in the tight and winning good, set-piece ball; I saw forwards bravely running into contact and putting their heads where there didn’t ought to be heads; I saw the back-row forwards rediscovering the reason that back-row forwards were invented; I saw three-quarters running straight lines – well, some of the time, anyway – to punch holes in the defence; and I witnessed a glorious don’t-give-it-to-Jonny try from my mate Charlie.
Glorious stuff. As I walked out of the ground, head held high, I heard snippets of conversation like ‘Brilliant, weren’t they.’ Or ‘That’s the best they’ve played all season.’ Or, ‘Great game – we can really kick on now.’
And it made my heart proud and I spent my time on the drive home composing a new Gloucester Rugby fans’ song, which I think it might catch on. It goes something like this:
The Kingsholm Shedheads sing this song,
The Gloucester players are too strong
Going to win today.
Smash ’em all up front.
Run around their backs,
I bet my money on a cherry ’n white win,
Best get out of our way.
Top notch lyrics, I think you’ll agree – poetic writing that’ll compete with old Alfred, any day of the week. Now, just got to think of a tune …
But then I got to thinking a bit deeper … just hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. Here’s me floating around the place, cloud nining it and thinking everything in the Gloucester Rugby camp is all tickety-boo when one rather irritating little detail keeps on jumping up and bopping me on the nose: we lost. We played with all that desire and get-up-and-go and joie de jouer and yet we lost.
And POP! All my happiness and relief that I was feeling just disappeared in a puff of despondency. Wave after wave of these irritating little details battered my outlook: we lost; at home; for the seventh time this season; at Castle Grim; against Munster.
And then after the despair came the guilt. I am, after all, a supporter of Gloucester Rugby, and a little voice goes on and on about how I must support and be positive and enjoy the good times and stiff-upper-lip it when the times get tough. We’ll have none of that negativity, the little voice drones on, so SUPPORT the team!
Well now, little voice, hear this well. I do. I am a supporter. I support the team. I pay my money to watch them. I clap and I chant “Gloucester, Gloucester” – well, I would if I could hit those G and E notes around which the whole dirge is based – and I tell the ref he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and I really enjoy talking about the team with my mates, and I always want to exchange ideas and opinions. We don’t always agree but it’s what being a supporter is all about.
We give everything a good airing and put the world to rights: the scrum half should have done this or the full back should have done that; our loose head had the come-uppance on their tight head; the ref was crap; and if we were the coach we’d do this instead of that.
As I say, we’d put the world to rights.
The only fly half in the ointment these days is that online forums like Shedweb exist and after we’ve had a few pints we go home and instead of going to bed and looking forward to a bright new beginning, we carry on the conversation. And every now and then, because of the faceless nature of the internet we express ourselves a touch too strongly.
So you must forgive me if I express myself a touch too strongly.
The match against Munster was always going to be a passionate affair, Mike Teague handing out the shirts or not. After the previous week’s calamitous display against Saracens there had to be passion – shed loads of it. And it was good to see.
But why am I congratulating a Gloucester team for playing with passion? Isn’t that a gimmee? And anyway, at premiership level a team needs more than passion.
We had so much possession and we had so much territory and yet too many times basics individual skills let us down. Too many times team skills let us down. And too much of the time we don’t look like scoring a try.
Either the team isn’t clicking yet and it’s just a matter of time, which begs the question: why isn’t it clicking at this stage of the season? Or, the team doesn’t know how to click, which begs the question: gulp?
Either way, the team isn’t clicking.
I’m not sure what 2014 will bring for Gloucester Rugby but you can bet your bottom sixpence on one thing – it’s going to be very interesting. Although, not necessarily for the right reasons, I’m afraid, and I can only hope that our Nige’s new-year-resolution tray is full to brimming.
I’ve been quiet for a couple of weeks, what with one thing and another, and in that time Gloucester Rugby posted a couple of wins. Blooming important wins, too, it has to be said. First up was a home 12 points to 6 win against Worcester – a cold, grim day and a dour match between two struggling teams. Next up, a precious 19 points to 22 away victory at London Irish – a cold, grim day and a dour match between two struggling teams.
But wins are wins and eight points is eight points, and for a spine-tingling moment or two I felt that this might be the green shoots of a successful new year – the turning point of the season. Eight beautiful points secured at the expense of the two teams below us and if we could just pull something magical out of the bag and sneak a win against Saracens, well, the world would be our oyster.
Who was I trying to kid? The matches against the Worriers and the Not-Nots were exactly what it said on the tin: bottom-three shoot-outs. Without wishing to sound too much like Ebenezer Scrooge, all we did was confirm our position as the third worst team in the premiership. We won’t be relegated – Worcester are the team for the long drop – but such is the difference between the best and the worst in the Aviva Premiership, there are probably two or three teams in the Championship that could possibly give us a bit of a hiding at the moment. In fact, I reckon with a following wind and a sympathetic ref, Cainscross RFC could teach Gloucester a thing or two!
So let’s see: we couldn’t score a try against Worcester and came within six thank-the-Lord inches of losing; and at the Madejski Stadium the Not-Nots scored three of the buggers and the only one we scored in our three-point win was a give-it-to-Jonny special. The Not-Nots coughed up the ball from the loose, Billy 12Ts pounced, gave it to Jonny (of course) and away Jonny went, unopposed.
We can’t score tries. Not good-old-fashioned, through-the-phases, honest-to-goodness, team-created tries, anyway. Even when we have parity in the scrum – or near-as-dammit parity in the scrum – the Gloucester Rugby team is about as threatening as a cherry blancmange.
And there aren’t many blancmanges that are going to worry the Saracens – not in their present form, anyway. Even before they arrived the writing – big and large and using words of no more than two syllables – was very plainly written on the wall: ‘You are stuffed,’ the writing said ‘Well and truly stuffed.’ The trouble is, not many of us cared to read it because we were too busy burying our heads in our hands, praying to the dear Lord Almighty – who lives in Kingsholm, by the way – that if it’s all right with Him, could He see his way to letting us pull off something rather miraculous against those scimitar-rattling infidels? We were, however, in for a tough time, and a tough time is what we got.
You know, on all sorts of levels, I don’t half feel for those players out there on the pitch. When they are playing they’re surrounded by 15,000 supporters baying for blood – the blood of the opposition preferably, but their own if necessary. They’re doing their best – you have to believe it – and then to cap it all, armchair critics like me, who haven’t had the sharp end of a rugby ball stuffed up their rear-end for decades, start pontificating and saying they should be doing this and they should be doing that and they show no commitment and they should be ashamed of themselves. Et cetera.
As I said a couple of paragraphs up, you have to believe that the players are trying their hardest; I know, I know – there were times in the match, in the first half particularly when this was difficult to see, and whenever you watch a match of rugby and you come away thinking that every single player in the starting fifteen was throwing a sickie then something’s very wrong. Our Nige said it himself:
‘I thought all the subs when they came on brought great energy, which is a bit of a worry because I would have hoped to have seen that from the rest of the team.’
Worrying words indeed, and you have to ask yourself the question: why? The answer is probably well beyond my pay scale but the only thing I can think of is that there is an issue between the players and the coaching team. If you’re a player and you love your coach (in every platonic sense of the word) then you’ll put your body on the line for him. The trouble is, if you don’t approve of the way you are being coached, or if you don’t agree with what you are being told to do, then you become a bit more half hearted.
There’s a rumour going round the Gloucester cognoscenti that on the basis that Saracens don’t do running rugby in their own half, the tactic was to keep them pinned back by playing a well judged kicking game.
What? Haven’t we been paying attention? That is so last year! This year’s Saracens are not the same as last year’s Saracens – they spent last year playing pragmatic, basic rugby and now they’ve got that sorted they have developed another weapon: the off-loading game. And they do it very well indeed.
And talking of improvement: our Nige has often mentioned that his team (our team, please!) isn’t ‘where we’d like to be’. Well he’s not wrong there. However, apart from stating the bleeding obvious this rather clichéd throw-away line begs the question: why the blooming hell not? And, assuming that where we’d like to be is an improvement on where we were last season, and what’s more, realising the enormity of the gulf between where we were at the end of last season and where we happen to be floundering at the moment, it also begs the question: OMG, what catastrophes have taken place between then and now that have allowed such an abyss-like gap to develop?
It may sound as if I’m having a bit of a go at our Nige. And I suppose I am, really. But there have been so many problems, so many deficiencies in personal skills and team skills it’s difficult to look much further than the coaching.
There is a malaise. Mark my words. Write it on the wall for all to see. There is a malaise and it needs to be identified and sorted. The longer we leave it, the more difficult it will become and the messier it will get. Something’s not right at Kingsholm and buying a fly-half and replacement set of front-row forwards is not going to put it right.
Castle Grim? Tell that to the Saracen bench players who, twenty minutes from the end of the match, were joshing and laughing and making rabbit ears behind the players being interviewed. This was a display of childish larking-about that took my breath away. It says a lot about them, but even more about the match. They should be quivering in their seats, hemmed in by the baying of the Kingsholm faithful.
Castle Grim has been breached and who the hell is going to stand up and fix it?
And that’s about as Christmassy as it’s going to get, I’m afraid. All my festive goodwill evaporated last Sunday in the wind and rain of a grim Gloucester afternoon.
You just don’t know whether you’re coming or going, being a Gloucester supporter. And this season is the most coming-and-going season I’ve experienced for a while. Whatever you want to call it – a rollercoaster ride, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, lack of consistency – the lows are pretty low and the peaks just aren’t peaky enough. One minute we’ve given those pesky Scots a bit of a seeing-to and we’re all hooraying and high-fiving, and the next they’ve swarmed over Hadrian’s wall with a new coaching plan tucked under their kilts (a simple but very effective tackle-anything-that-moves coaching plan) and they’ve marched down to Gloucester City and battered down the gates of Fortress Kingsholm.
What the Freddie Burns was that all about then? I’m beginning to crave a bit of consistency, I can tell you – and I mean consistency in the way of consistently good, not the other.
I was a happy chap last week and looking forward to my Christmas pudding: we’d won a crucial away fixture and, with a following wind and a bit cor-blimey, we could possibly claw our way back into the Heineken quarter-finals. I even thought a premiership play-off position was still a possibility – you’ve got to dream, haven’t you? I just had this gut feeling that everything was now beginning to click – team cohesion, coaching plans etc, etc.
And now I’m all grumpy again. I know it’s only a game and I know everyone is doing their best – at least I assume everyone is doing their best – but we pay good money to watch these professionals and we have a certain level of expectation. That’s not too unreasonable, is it?
For the first time ever I heard the chants of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ and wondered who was being serenaded. Referee? Team? Or coach?
I do not buy into the theory that it was the indiscipline of our team that cost us the game against Edinburgh. And neither do I buy into the theory that this lack of discipline is a player problem and outside the control of the coach. Without doubt there was a bit of silliness out there, but even had we been camped on their line for the full eighty minutes, I don’t think we would have had the nous to score a try. And neither would it have mattered a jot, if we’d had fourteen, fifteen or one hundred and fifteen players on the pitch. A try wasn’t going to happen.
And anyway, a team with poor discipline, is a poorly coached team, isn’t it? It’s one thing to have an occasional rush of blood – it’s a completely different kettle of fish to be serial offenders.
And while we’re on the subject of poorly coached teams, if our backs can only run diagonally and then throw huge, looped, miss passes into the crowd, we are a poorly coached team. Even worse, if you have no idea what to with the ball, you are, by definition, a poorly coached team, and there were times, I’m almost sure of it, when Gloucester players found themselves with the ball in their hands and thought: ‘Blooming hell. What do I do with this?’
Even camped on their try line they had no spark of imagination – for phase after phase they pounded the line and for phase after phase they didn’t look like scoring. They crabbed almost the whole width of the pitch, but not an inch forward did they advance. And you can’t blame the forwards for not giving the ball to the backs, either – the three-quarters looked even less likely to score.
And I’m sure the irony of the set-piece performance has not escaped you: the front five performance was solid and the lineout reliable. That we were able to keep in any sort of contact with Edinburgh was due to a pack of forwards so recently lambasted for its ineptness.
I had some terrible thoughts as I watched that match: so poor was the attitude, I wondered whether there’s a bit of discord running through the camp. There were instances of non-commitment that caught my eye that made me quiver with rage.
And then, to compound my concern, at the end of the match our Nige insisted that he experienced problems getting his instructions across to the players on the pitch.
The ramifications of that comment are mind boggling.
Is he distancing himself from the performance? ‘If they’d listened to me,’ he seems to be suggesting, ‘everything would have been okay.’ Or is he claiming that the players didn’t have the tactical wherewithal or leadership to cope with the match conditions.
Worcester next week and who, I ask you, is targeting whom. Is our Nige looking up the M5 and banking on four, possibly five, points? Or is our EX looking down the M5 and licking his lips at the thought of his first premiership win of the season?
No but seriously, Gloucester will beat Worcester – we couldn’t possibly be that bad – but it’s a measure of my Christmas dispiritedness that the thought has even crossed my mind.
The other week, when Leicester visited Kingsholm with their A team and gave us a bit of a tonking, I noticed Billy Twelvetrees having a right go at Jonny May. That’s a bit rum, I thought. What’s going on there?
We all love Jonny, don’t we? What a great runner he is and I love to see him give that little wave as he runs under the posts. There are times, however, when he seems to have a little rush of blood to the head or a rush of testosterone to the … wherever testosterone rushes to … and he gets a little carried away. All of a sudden he finds himself holding the ball and, with the terrible burden of the expectant throngs of Kingsholm supporters chanting Jonnneee, Jonnneee, Jonnneee, he feels obliged to do something exciting – even when there’s nothing exciting to be done.
For half a second he stands there, ball in hand and the opposition forwards are positively slavering as they charge in his general direction. Instead of passing it to someone who knows better, or kicking it into touch or feigning a fatal injury, he throws his head back and does what everyone in the ground is baying for – something exciting. If the way forward is blocked – it usually is – he invariably chooses run around the opposition, his team mates and his own goal posts, in a desperate search for space. Sometimes it works but more often than not, unfortunately, he ends up at the bottom of a ruck somewhere behind the position he first received the ball and when he does eventually peel himself off the turf – having been turned over, of course – he saunters back to his position on the wing.
And old Billy gave him a right mouthful. I’ve become pretty good at lip reading over the years and the gist of it was: “I don’t know what the hell you were trying to do just then but if you are going to take the ball and run around the pitch like you’ve eaten a Moruga Scorpion you could at least have the decency, when you’ve finally extricated your nose out of the dirt, to make more of an effort to get back into position to do the hard graft and inglorious stuff that rest have to do.” And he was waving his arms around in a none too friendly fashion.
That was interesting, I pondered. Very interesting. And a couple of other little thoughts crossed my mind, too. One of them was that this guy – Twelvetrees, that is – would probably make a very good captain.
The other thought was that Billy 12Ts might have been expressing his frustration, not just with Jonny, but with the way Gloucester have played this season. Don’t forget the pedigree of Billy – he’s a Leicester man and he knows what it’s like to be in a professional outfit – a truly professional outfit – where they don’t rely on opportunistic, give-it-to-Jonny, turn-over tries as their only source of points.
Just a thought.
Well, anyway, with the return to the Heineken Cup, we had to face up to an unfortunate injury to our captain, Tom Savage, and a trip up to Edinburgh. Interestingly, Billy 12Ts was given the captain’s armband, and we played a half-decent game coming away with a very good win. And, things being what they are at the moment, a win’s not just a win – it’s a shot in the arm.
And what’s more, my mate May catches the ball, sticks two fingers in my general direction and, with the terrible burden of the expectant throngs of the Edinburgh supporters willing their forwards to pounce on him, he feels obliged to do something exciting – and sets up a wonderful try for Martyn Thomas.
So that’s all right then.
We hear, too, that Christmas is coming early to Kingsolm and that Santa is being very generous indeed: Sila Puafisi, John Afoa and, dare I say it, Richard Hibbard have been (are about to be) signed up and if that isn’t a mouthwatering front-row prospect, my name’s not Gloucester Ed … which it isn’t, thinking about it, but you get my point.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that as I sallied forth to do some festive shopping in Gloucester’s Poundland this morning, I noticed the good burghers of Gloucester walking around with a bit of a swagger and a bit of a smile – not something we’ve been doing much lately. It’s a blimey-we-won-a-game sort of swagger and a pity-the-poor-buggers-who-come-up-against-our-front-row-next-season sort of smile. I don’t want to tempt fate or anything, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the win in Edinburgh turns out to be that exciting and elusive season-defining game I like to go on about.
We’re on the up, I tell you, we’re on the up.
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.