Serial underachievers, sleeping giants and a traditional west-country powerhouse eclipsed by their junior rivals from the South. Gloucester are a club that has managed to clutch defeat and disappointment from the jaws of victory on numerous occasions, three times finishing top of the English Premiership in its various sponsorship incarnations – yet never winning the Championship itself.
The club has recently found itself struggling at the lower reaches of the league and despite excellent performances and wins against the likes of Saracens and Wasps last season was equally interspersed with defeats home and away to Newcastle and as well as failures at home to Bath, Harlequins, Northampton, Exeter and Leicester. Consistently inconsistent is probably a fair assessment. Over the past three seasons Gloucester have reached two European Challenge Cup finals, winning one and also triumphed in the Anglo-Welsh Cup against Newcastle in 2011. But if you ask most Gloucester supporters they will tell of a litany of missed chances, under-performing players and disappointing departures of the few stars who showed genuine talent and ability.
This summer, one of the marquee signings, Carl Fearns didn’t even make it to Kingsholm, instead tearing up his contract and remaining with Lyon. Only a few weeks ago, Johnny May, probably the clubs most recognisable name was sold to Leicester. Although Gloucester received Ed Slater in return, the two sagas fed into a wider impression that the club is one in decline. Perceptions are important and need to be tackled quickly. Last season the difference between success and failure could be measured in minutes. Two league defeats and a draw came after the clock had hit 80 minutes. But in professional sport, nearly isn’t good enough.
The supporters, to their credit, are sticking by the team. The arrival of Johan Ackermann, one of the most highly rated coaches in World Rugby has lifted spirits. There is hope that they will see an attacking and attractive style of play, certainly compared to the relentless kicking seen under Laurie Fisher who left the club towards the end of last season.
The back-to-back pre-season fixtures against Hartpury and Llanelli certainly signalled an intent to retain possession and play at pace, but there is still a nagging doubt about the strength of the pack, particularly when shorn of the first choice players.
Looking at the squad as a whole, it is not unreasonable to say Gloucester should be pushing for a Champions Cup place and it appears that this is the minimum requirement for the coming season. However with the league being more competitive than ever, a relegation battle isn’t a vague threat and it is important that the club make Kingsholm the fortress it once was. Even in the mid-1990’s, Gloucester could rely on their home form to keep them away from trouble but in the last two seasons, the mystique of the old ground seems to have faded somewhat.
Ahead of the season opener against Champions Exeter Chiefs, there are a few injury concerns. New boys Jason Woodward and Owen Williams are doubts, as is Tom Marshall. Ross Moriarty has not recovered from his back injury sustained on British and Irish Lions duty. Playing against the English Champions in front of the BTSport cameras does give the players an opportunity to make a statement. Last year in their opening fixture, for 50 minutes they were unplayable, securing a try bonus point minutes into the second half – only to capitulate spectacularly and lose on the final play.
The key to the game on Friday night will be retaining possession and not giving Exeter the opportunity to kick into the corners and deploy their formidable lineout drives. Gloucester need to retain their discipline and avoid penalties, but also by playing the right areas. Too often last season, the team would try to force play from their own 22, but then lacked patience when in the oppositions. Exeter play a simple game effectively, they are also the best team in the league for reorganising their defence. They will also have the confidence of Champions and always bring a loud and devoted following to Kingsholm.
Friday night will be close to if not a sell-out and the noise in the stadium under the lights should be deafening. To an extent over the past few seasons, the supporters at Kingsholm have needed the team to get them excited rather than the supporters creating an atmosphere for the players to revel in. It needs to be different on Friday, the fans need to make the effort first, leave the Exeter players and supporters in no doubt that this year, Kingsholm is not an easy place to come – it is a Fortress, an intimidating one and that Gloucester is the hardest place to start the defence of your title.
This summer has been one of the most disruptive in the clubs history. The failure to obtain the investment of Mohad Altrad will have long term effects, not only on Gloucester but possibly on the whole league. It has meant that grand plans have had to be shelved and supporters to wonder ‘what if?’ A host of new sponsorship deals including the renaming of The Shed and the likelihood of an artificial pitch being installed ready for the 2018/19 season has led some supporters to question the direction of the club, but in the cold light of day the financial perils of not maximising the available revenue are too great.
Arguably the failure to complete the Altrad deal has finally woken the hierarchy at the club to the under-developed commercial opportunities they were missing out on. The sport is now a long way from its Amateur beginnings, where only the strongest and most resilient survive. Over the past 21 years since the beginning of Professionalism, the game has lost many ‘big’ names – London Welsh, Coventry, Rugby, West Hartlepool, Orrell, Richmond, London Scottish, while others such as Leeds, Bristol and Rotherham have yo-yoed up and down. Even Harlequins and Northampton have succumbed to relegation, meaning that Gloucester are only one of 4 teams to have played in every season of the top flight. To suggest that this position is under threat is not scare mongering but a realistic interpretation of the difficulties that clubs without a rich benefactor now operate in.
Maybe the likes of Bath and Saracens will find difficulties if their respective owners grow tired of their investments, or lack of return on them. Maybe another super-rich benefactor can be found for Gloucester, one who doesn’t incur the same controversy as Monsieur Altrad and maybe the RFU and Premiership will make the final decision to remove the perils of relegation altogether. The most important thing for Gloucester Rugby at this point is to make sure that they are on the right side of that line, should the day finally come. Fans are naturally optimistic for the season ahead, but know that the margins are fine and a good start on Friday evening would go a long way in building confidence for the months to come.