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Johan Ackermann has put Gloucester on the path to challenge for top prizes

Johan Ackermann - Gloucester

Departing Gloucester Rugby chief executive Stephen Vaughan offers NEALE HARVEY his thoughts on the game as he heads for pastures new.

After seven years at Gloucester, is the club in a better place than when you started?

I’d like to think so. When I arrived in 2012, I did an audit of the playing and non-playing departments on what change was needed – a big piece of work on why Gloucester hadn’t been successful compared with other clubs at the time such as Harlequins, Saracens, Leicester, Glasgow, Munster and Leinster.

It didn’t take long to work out that they had very different structures within their playing departments and a lot less turnover of players and coaches. In my first year at Gloucester, we had 26 players join us. There were good players like Greig Laidlaw, John Afoa, James Hook and Richard Hibbard but the turnover was ridiculous and it’s obvious that you’re not going to win anything like that; you need consistency in your churn of people.

Nigel Davies had been in charge as head coach dealing with everything at the time, but where I ended up taking it was to appoint David Humphreys as DoR in 2014 dealing with me on recruitment, retention, academy and medical while allowing the head coach to coach. There has been some change since then but to nowhere near the same extent and you can see from where the club is now how much more stable things are.

The big silverware still eludes Gloucester, though, doesn’t it?

It takes a bit of time but getting to the Premiership semi-finals for the first time in nearly a decade last season was fantastic and only having three or four players coming in and out this year is a good achievement as well. Retaining the likes of our head coach Johan Ackermann, Danny Cipriani and Jake Polledri is huge and Gloucester really is a club people don’t want to leave anymore.

Players aren’t just looking at the next place to go, they think they can win things here. We’ve built what we like to call a ‘no-excuse’ culture and we’ve put in a new hybrid pitch at Kingsholm, developed our training ground at Hartpury into one of the best high-performance facilities around and, to be quite frank, the players want for nothing. We’ve got a very happy camp there and Johan’s been excellent in putting us on the right path.

All well and good, but Gloucester were still hammered 44-19 by Saracens in that semi-final and haven’t made the Champions Cup knock-out stage since 2008. Concerned?

No! What that game at Allianz Park did for us was massive. After the game everyone was gutted but, in my opinion, Saracens are as good as a Test team and when you’re playing them away from home and they’re fully loaded, they need to have a bit of an off day and you need to be at your best to get a result.

That obviously didn’t happen but what we observed in the changing room afterwards is that there were a lot of people who’d never been to a semi-final before and that experience is absolutely vital. Just being there and seeing the level of intensity you’ve got to reach to get to a Twickenham final is massive for us. I also think that the fact we’re keeping the same group together pretty much wholesale is going to be good and we’re not going to lose too many players internationally next season. Other sides will be without their England players or other internationals during the World Cup and even when they do come back they’ll need to recover mentally, so if Gloucester can get off to a good start and reach Christmas largely unbeaten in the league and Champions Cup, that will stand the guys in very good stead.

Can Gloucester seriously entertain dethroning Saracens or Exeter in the top two?

Why not? We finished third last season and of course you can keep progressing. You want to get into the top two and while we know that’s going to be a mammoth task with Exeter and Saracens proving over recent years that they’ve been better than anyone else, I also think that sport is cyclical and that situation won’t last forever. Northampton, Harlequins, Bath, Sale and others will all be saying the same things but I do put a lot of worth in consistency and not having massive change. I think that’s worth ten points a season and if I was to have a wager, I’d say the top three may be the same next season and I hope Gloucester can go that little bit further by getting into the top two and earning that home play-off. 

You mentioned stability, but what if South Africa come knocking for Johan? We can’t do a lot about external approaches but we’ve extended the contracts of both Johan and David Humphreys and are very excited about that. Without wanting to make it sound like plagiarism, when you look at Saracens and Exeter and see how they’ve kept groups of people together off the field, a real driving force for them has been that consistency.

We see David and Johan being here for the foreseeable future but if people are after them that’s also brilliant because you must be doing something right if people are getting talked about. Nobody’s talked about us like that for a number of years and while you’d never want to stand in the way of anyone coaching their country if they came calling, Johan loves it at Gloucester. He’s got the full support of the board, players and fans and I’m sure he’d love to add some silverware to his CV before thinking about moving on.

Saracens v Gloucester
Learning curve: Gloucester can break into the top two with Saracens and Exeter Chiefs. Pete Norton/Getty Images

Elsewhere, there’s a controversial decision pending over a 13-team Premiership from 2019/20. Where do you stand on this promotion and relegation issue?

If we had a Championship like football has, I don’t think anybody would be debating this. In football you’ve got a load of huge tier two clubs like Leeds, West Brom, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, Nottingham Forest and many, many more with massive academies, huge supporter bases and backers who have the capability of moving seamlessly into the Premier League and not just staying there, but adding to it.

But the issue staring us in the face in rugby is that we just don’t have those Premiership-ready teams in our Championship. Only a couple of years ago people were talking about Yorkshire Carnegie as one of the teams that should be given a pass into the Premiership because of their location, stadium and ability to have an academy, but look at the state they’re in now! You wouldn’t wish that on anyone but, barring one or two, it highlights the massive difference between the Premiership and the Championship in rugby. Therefore, do I feel that expanding the Premiership to 13 and putting another club in there that is fully equipped is a good thing? Yes.

To the permanent exclusion of all others?

It’s not as black and white as that and I think as long as it can be readdressed so that whoever it may be – an Ealing, Coventry or Cornish Pirates – who have got the facilities and wherewithal to be sustainable at the highest level, with everything that entails in terms of having the right backers and crowds, I’m not saying romance is dead. On the flipside, most Premiership clubs are making significant losses at the moment and if you take away the spectre of relegation, that can be the difference between attracting new partnerships and sponsorships, new players coming in, being able to hold on to homegrown players, EQP and changing the whole dynamic of how you operate.

I believe we should keep the option for a Championship club to come through but the harsh reality is that if a prospective club can’t prove it can be sustainable and not detract from the Premiership, then we have the right to ask those questions. People talk about Exeter but that was once-in-a-lifetime stuff and they had a very solid foundation before they came up. You’d love to have a dozen big Premiership teams and another dozen below that creating huge competition, but the reality is we don’t have that strength-in-depth. It’s like comparing football’s Premier League with League Two!

What sort of shape do you feel the Premiership and rugby in general is in?

The Premiership product is in a good place. Although Saracens won the competition again, there was a lot at stake until the last game of the season and it’s a brutal, brutal league now. Leicester weren’t sure they were going to be a Premiership club until late in the season while Gloucester, Northampton and Harlequins all had good years after a few lower table finishes.

The brand is in a very good spot with regards the commerciality of it all and England winning the World Cup would be good for everyone. The RFU have had financial problems but I also think they recognise the importance of the partnership between them and Premiership Rugby. We recently had the CVC involvement and that’s not just good news from a financial perspective, the know-how, commercial acumen and drive they’ll bring has got to be good news for the clubs. It’ll not just be a mission to make money, it will be about how they can improve the product for supporters and rugby in the community. In the not to distant future media rights will be up for discussion and you’d expect CVC and Premiership Rugby’s new CEO, Darren Childs, will be able to ensure a great TV offering that works for the clubs commercially.

Predicting success: Stephen Vaughan

While clubs received an initial cash boost from CVC’s investment, you’ve sacrificed 27 per cent of your ongoing annual funding to do that. How’s the shortfall going to be recouped?

Commercial deals around media are changing dramatically and while the upfront cash from CVC (around £13.5m per club) was useful and we’ll do different things with it, I believe there’s still huge revenue growth out there. CVC won’t just hope things will be okay, they’ve done their homework and will see rugby’s still got a lot of potential in it. The game’s values fit well with rights holders so I’d expect the next set of rights from 2021 to attract huge interest. The average household doesn’t just watch one TV set now, quite often there’ll be a laptop and phone on as well so that opens up huge new markets to rugby.

The whole media space is changing so it won’t just be traditional players interested in the market, there will be online players as well looking for great content they can do a lot with. Premiership Rugby will be highly attractive to a number of new platforms, not just traditional TV companies.

There’s been talk of a British & Irish League, does that have any attraction to you?

You’d never say never but it’s not been discussed anywhere by Premiership Rugby at this stage and I’ve only seen comment from a couple of clubs in Wales. Landscapes and competitions can change but the Gallagher Premiership, in my opinion, is the strongest in the world over the Top 14, PRO14 and Super Rugby so there’d have to be a very compelling argument to get much immediate change from its stakeholders. You could argue that Welsh teams coming to Gloucester, Bath and Bristol might stoke some interest because of historic rivalries, but if you’re talking about joining leagues up with all the different parameters teams operate under within the RFU, WRU, IRFU and SRU, it would be a big project. 

Ben Youngs - England scrum-half
Rolling on: England have named their squad for the World Cup and Vaughan says the club game can reap the rewards if success is achieved in Japan. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

After failing miserably in 2015, how much would some England success at the forthcoming World Cup mean to the clubs?

For the club game in general, it’s massively important. There are four or five teams that could lift the World Cup but we need to go deep and if they do manage to win it, that can only help Premiership rugby because if you’ve got your Owen Farrells, Maro Itojes and Jonny Mays coming back to their clubs as winners, the uplift that gives you is huge. In 2015, we had four games at Kingsholm that were a rip-roaring success and we gained some legacy from that in things like floodlights, media facilities and interest in the game locally, but to the average English punter the tournament felt like a damp squib because our team was out before we got going properly. We really missed an opportunity because there’s still a massive disparity between the numbers of people who engage with the national team and those who watch club games. There’ll be ways to bridge that gap and that’s something I’ve no doubt CVC will be looking at as well, so it’s vitally important for England to succeed.

On CVC’s involvement again, do you ever foresee Premiership Rugby being run by an NFL-style commissioner with centralised marketing and all that entails?

Nothing is off the table.  CVC will get a lot more involved with the commerciality of it so while at the moment the owners ARE the board, if a different structure might be beneficial then I don’t think it will be long before you see that. Existing shareholders would want their say but it will be interesting to see how CVC’s influence manifests itself.

Any big concerns you have over rugby moving forward?

There’s still work to do on season structure and competitions but the main thing I’d want to keep my eye on is around the values of the game. As rugby gets more professional and players get faster, bigger and more well paid, we mustn’t lose sight of what’s really attractive about our game, which is the values around discipline, respect and accessibility. That’s really attractive to mums and dads who want to get their kids playing and to business partners, sponsors and rights holders. Manners, good grace, sportsmanship and teamwork are what sets rugby apart but we see instances of gamesmanship and back chat towards referees now which need keeping a very tight rein on.

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